Former United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon abruptly ended his attempt to seek South Korea’s presidency Wednesday, a surprise announcement that removes a key figure in the scramble to replace impeached President Park Geun-hye.
“I will give up my pure intention to bring about a change in politics under my leadership and to unify the country,” Ban told reporters at a hastily arranged press conference. “I’m sorry for disappointing many people.”
Ban returned home last month after a decade in New York and was widely expected to run in elections due this year, but his putative candidacy ran into a series of stumbles and he struggled for backing.
Although he never officially declared he was running, the former U.N. secretary-general embarked on a series of public appearances and repeatedly spoke of the need to bring about a “change in politics” in a country where a wide-ranging corruption scandal has seen Park impeached.
Reports claimed he had signed a contract to rent a 660-square meter office in Seoul, and as recently as Tuesday he was urging a change to the constitution to dilute the sweeping executive powers of the presidency and ensure more co-operative governance.
The 72-year-old was widely expected to join Park’s Saenuri party or an emerging conservative breakaway group for presidential elections which are due this year, whatever the outcome of the impeachment process.
But he struggled to secure party backing, and corruption allegations were made against some of his relatives.
“I was very disappointed by the parochial, selfish attitudes of some politicians,” he said Wednesday. “I reached a conclusion that it would be meaningless to move forward with them.”
“In order to resolve our current problems, we need to abandon the self-conceited attitude of ‘it must be me or no one else’,” Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, added.
But he was also to some extent the author of his own misfortune, analysts said, not articulating a clear political platform and his prominent global role failing to translate into domestic support.
Pictures of him trying to put two banknotes into a ticket machine at once made him appear out of touch, and front-page photos of him wearing a bib to feed porridge to an old woman flat on her back in a care home sparked public fury.
He was criticized for wearing head-to-toe protective gear to try out a disinfectant spray at a farm, when most of those around him were not similarly dressed, and came under fire for becoming infuriated with reporters who asked questions about a controversial agreement between South Korea and Japan on wartime sex slaves.
He said his “pure patriotism” and pushes for a political reform were badly damaged by political slandering and by “various fake news” that targeted him.
His support in public opinion polls had rapidly declined from 20.3 percent when he returned to 13.1 percent before his announcement.
The withdrawal of Ban, who had been considered the only major conservative contender, boosts liberal Moon Jae-in, who has enjoyed a comfortable lead in opinion surveys since Park was impeached in December.
Moon, of the main opposition Democratic Party, said Ban’s announcement was “unexpected considering his recent activities” but said he will seek his advice on diplomatic issues.