(ATTN: UPDATES with quotes, details in paras 3-8, 12-14; ADDS photos)
SEOUL, May 2 (Yonhap) -- Thirteen lawmakers announced their departure from the conservative Bareun Party on Tuesday, saying they will support the presidential candidate of a rival party to boost the conservatives' chances in the election seven days away.
The lawmakers said they will return to the former ruling Liberty Korea Party and back its nominee Hong Joon-pyo. Bareun, which means "righteous" in Korean, spun off from the Liberty Korea Party early this year in a factional feud.
"Our nation's politics, economy and national security are currently at a critical and crucial time," Rep. Hong Moon-pyo of the Bareun Party said in a press briefing at the National Assembly, flanked by the other members of the group. "In such a situation, we could not turn away from the expectations of the people calling for a grand conservative merger."
Rep. Hong said there was a "stern" demand by the conservative electorate to unite to stop the "pro-North Korea, leftist" forces from taking power. But despite their efforts to persuade him, the party's presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min rejected their call, he said.
"Together with Hong (Joon-pyo), we will do our best to see the conservatives take power," the lawmaker said.
Yoo, who has suffered from dismal approval ratings of around 5 percent, reaffirmed his determination to complete the race alone.
"I will make sure I am chosen by the people on May 9," he told reporters on the campaign trail in Seoul.
He added, "I wanted to take a truly difficult and tough path together, but I understand why they had to make such a decision. I'm certainly to blame for some of it, and my heart aches over it."
Front-runner Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party commands an approval rating above 40 percent, double that of the closest competitor Ahn Cheol-soo of the center-left People's Party.
After struggling for weeks with a single-digit approval rating, Hong has emerged to challenge Ahn with near 20 percent support.
With the defection, the number of Bareun's lawmakers was reduced to 19, and the party lost its status as a negotiating bloc at the National Assembly.
The party originally had 33 seats in the 300-member Assembly but lost one lawmaker to the Liberty Korea Party last week. It is expected to shrink further with the planned departure of at least one additional lawmaker in the coming days.
The mass defections could herald the end of the party that launched in the wake of then-President Park Geun-hye's impeachment over a corruption scandal.
Critics argued the lawmakers have weakened the justification for the party's foundation by clinging to political gains.
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