Key liberal factions, anxious to distance themselves from unpopular President Roh Moo-hyun and his even less loved Uri party, will early next month form an alliance to challenge the Grand National Party (GNP), both of whose presidential candidates are far ahead in opinion polls.
''It will be the second largest political group with about 85 members of parliament joining,'' said Cho Yong-taek, an adviser to presidential hopeful and Oxford-educated Sohn Hak-kyu, who lies a distant third in opinion polls with a barely 8 per cent rating.
It will include MPs who have deserted the Uri Party, along with two others with a firm eye on the presidency -- former unification minister and one-time TV anchor Chung Dong-young and ex-premier and women's rights activist Han Myeong-sook.
Crucially, they have the implicit support of former President Kim Dae-jung and leading dissident voice during South Korea's long period under autocratic rule, who still carries considerable political muscle especially in the south-west of the country.
''The majority of political experts see Kim Dae-jung as more important (in influencing the next election) than Roh,'' said Lee Nae-young, political science professor at Korea University.
But opinion polls make plain it will be very much the underdog in the contest with the GNP, now the biggest party in parliament as MPs have fled the once ruling Uri Party.
Personalities often matter more than policies in South Korean elections, but the two main political groups have important differences.
The liberals favour government involvement in developing the regions and ensuring more help for the country's have-nots. They are also more willing to extend largesse to North Korea, even when its prickly neighbour misbehaves.
The conservative GNP favours pro-business policies, which also benefit South Korea's giant family-owned conglomerates, and say they will come down hard on feisty trade unions.
On North Korea, they espouse a carrot and stick approach that squarely ties aid to progress in international disarmament talks with Pyongyang.
The new liberal alliance has still to decide on a platform and will have a daunting challenge in deciding who will be its candidate to replace Roh for a five-year term in the presidential Blue House.
It is expected to hold a primary election in October.
Polls show that just over half of voters support the GNP, with around 40 per cent support for one-time construction boss and former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak.
His chief rival for the GNP's nomination is Park Geun-hye, daughter of assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee, who appeals to the more conservative element of the party and has just under a 30 per cent approval rating.
But while Lee's support has been slipping, Park's is unchanged which some analysts say suggests many voters might be put off by the ferocity of their rivalry.
In an editorial on a rowdy weekend session of the two camps, the Dong-A Ilbo wrote: ''It made one wonder if they really share the same ideology and party affiliation.
They seemed to ignore the public.'' Professor Lee said the liberal coalition's main hope is that the increasingly bitter scraps inside the GNP camp will divide supporters once the party chooses its presidential candidate in a vote set for August 19.
But while many political watchers say South Korea's hugely volatile politics make it almost impossible to confidently call the outcome until the very end of the campaign, most see the GNP fairly certain to take power.
''It still seems impossible to overcome the popularity gap,'' said Lee.
REUTERS NC SSC1348