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Seoul residents to vote on free school meals

Aug. 22, 2011 - 19:32 By
 Turnout likely to decide winner in city’s first-ever plebiscite, mayor’s fate

Seoul’s first-ever plebiscite will take place Wednesday, asking its citizens to decide whether all schoolchildren should be provided with free lunches regardless of their parents’ income.

The vote, however, has turned into a battle between the country’s rival political forces and its results will serve as a barometer of voter sentiment ahead of general and presidential elections next year, political observers say.

All eyes are on the voter turnout, as those supporting Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and his proposal of giving free lunches to the poor alone are called on to ignore an opposition-led boycott drive and cast ballots.

Oh on Sunday put his mayorship on the line in a desperate effort to draw more people to polling stations.

“I will stake my mayorship on the results of Wednesday’s referendum. If the turnout does not reach the quorum, I will also take full responsibility,” a teary Oh said Sunday. In order for the vote to be valid, at least one third of the city’s eligible voters must cast their votes. 
With just two days left to the referendum on free school lunches, two citizens hold pickets ― one (left) calling for a boycott of the vote and the other urging residents to cast ballots, at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap News)

Although the outcome of the vote on whether to adopt Oh’s proposal or another opposition-favored choice will be determined by the majority rule once it becomes valid, a turnout higher than a third is generally regarded as a victory for Oh, considering that his opponents are stepping up a boycott campaign.

The vote was made possible with a petition by civic groups seeking to invalidate a Seoul City Council ordinance to give free lunches to all elementary school students starting this year. The conservative mayor had vetoed the program, initiated by the city’s education office and endorsed by the city council, both dominated by his liberal foes.

Oh, once considered as one of the potential presidential candidates for the conservative ruling bloc Grand National Party, had declared earlier that he would not run for presidency.

Rep. Hong Joon-pyo, the leader of the ruling bloc, on Monday vowed full support for the mayor.

“For the remaining two days, the Grand National Party will devote itself to the campaign to encourage more citizens to cast their ballot,” he said after a meeting of party leaders.

Party members, however, largely disapproved of Oh’s make-or-break bet on the referendum.

“It is not right for the mayor to stake his post on the results of a plebiscite which should be a policy poll,” Rep. Kwon Young-se, a GNP member, said.

Main opposition Democratic Party, which has sided with Oh’s liberal opponents in the city council and education office in support of free meals for all, continued a campaign to boycott the vote.

“Why do you cry, mayor, while saying not to give meals to the students? Those who should cry are the children who would be stripped of their lunches, if you win,” Rep. Lee Young-sup, a DP spokesperson, quipped.

The party urges citizens not to participate in the vote, as it is nothing but Oh’s political tool to achieve his ambitions.

Kwak Noh-hyun, the liberal-minded chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, also criticized the mayor.

“(The mayor’s announcement) is regretful. The mayor turned the plebiscite into a vote of confidence on him,” he said.

On turnout, forecasts vary widely, with both Oh’s proponents and opponents predicting their victory.

Civic groups opposing the free-for-all meal plan say Oh’s sacrifice would help bring his supporters to the polling stations, elevating the turnout to nearly 40 percent. The DP officials, however, say it would reach 20 percent at the most.

By Lee Sun-young (