By Jack Kim and Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - Former U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, once considered front-runner to be the next South Korean president, ruled out a run for the job on Wednesday, saying he was "disappointed at the selfish ways" of some politicians and complaining of "fake news".
Ban told reporters at parliament, after meeting conservative party leaders, that he had been subject to "malign slander akin to character assassination" in the media and had given up his "patriotic" plan to lead political change.
"With all kinds of fake news, my intention for political change was nowhere to be seen and all that was left was grave scars to my family and myself, and to the honor of the U.N., where I spent the past 10 years," he said.
South Korea has been gripped by political crisis for months amid a corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. If the impeachment vote is upheld by the Constitutional Court, she will have to quit and an election would be held two months later.
A ruling is expected as soon as late this month.
Ban, 72, returned to South Korea on Jan. 12 after serving 10 years as U.N. secretary-general. He was unable to capitalize on his much-anticipated homecoming, cutting a sometimes-irritable figure in public and mired in a series of perceived PR gaffes and a scandal involving family members.
The media leapt on a series of minor blunders, for instance when he took the airport express train instead of a limo on his return to South Korea, but didn't know how to buy a ticket.
Two days later, Ban visited a care home where he fed porridge to an old woman. He was criticized for wearing a bib when the old woman was not - and for feeding someone lying flat on their back.
Even without announcing his intention to run, his support ratings in opinion polls had slipped to second place behind the presidential candidate for the main opposition Democratic Party, Moon Jae-in, after peaking at nearly 30 percent last year.
Ban had been expected to run as a conservative but was unable to secure any party affiliation.
"STILL HAS A ROLE TO PLAY"
Ban's clean image and his international profile were dealt a blow with the indictment of his brother, Ban Ki-sang, and a nephew in the United States in a bribery scheme involving a Vietnamese development project.
Ban's announcement appeared to take the four main political parties aiming to field candidates by surprise, including Moon's Democratic Party.
"I was looking forward to a good race, so it is disappointing," he told reporters.
A poll or 1,147 people by R&Search released on Wednesday showed Ban's support continuing to slip to 16.5 percent from 18 percent a week ago, compared to 35.2 percent for Moon, up from 34.8 percent a week ago.
Ban's decision could boost the chances of minor candidates such as Ahn Cheol-soo of the progressive People's Party, said Kim Jun-seok, a political science professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.
There had been little to propel Ban's chances for the presidency in the absence of a political base and the lack of a clear message after his return from New York, Kim said.
"He has hit a wall with nothing but his high profile as the U.N. Secretary-General," Kim said.
"While his support ratings did not rise ... he kept making mistakes. And people felt that Ban should not be a president."
Ban was South Korea's foreign minister from 2004 to 2006, helping to implement a policy of engagement with North Korea, before taking the top job at the United Nations.
(Reporting by Jack Kim and Ju-min Park; Editing by Nick Macfie and Bill Tarrant)