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Seoul goes to polls over free meals

Aug. 23, 2011 - 19:42 By
Voting begins across Seoul on Wednesday for the city’s first-ever plebiscite, which will determine how schoolchildren will be getting their lunches and the fate of Mayor Oh Se-hoon.

A total of 2,206 polling stations across the capital will be open between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. Some 8.3 million Seoulites are eligible to cast their ballot, including 20,640 foreign nationals residing in Seoul. 
Civic groups supporting Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon’s proposal to provide school meals only to poor students rally in Seoul on Tuesday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

A citizen pickets near a Seoul subway station on Tuesday, urging people to boycott Wednesday’s free school meal vote. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Voters will be asked to choose from two options: one to provide free meals to all students regardless of their parents’ income and the other to give them only to the poor.

The stake, however, goes beyond school meals.

Oh, a conservative politician belonging to the ruling Grand National Party, has put his mayoral post on the line for the referendum’s success, casting himself as a crusader against “welfare populism.”

He proposed the partial benefit plan as an alternative to the universal one which was proposed and endorsed by the city’s council dominated by his liberal foes.

The referendum is also seen as a test of public sentiment toward rival political parties ahead of general and presidential elections next year.

President Lee Myung-bak and the ruling camp have rallied behind Oh, as the battle line was drawn between conservatives and liberals. The liberal opposition Democratic Party, for its part, is all out to crush the conservative mayor. A victory will give the opposition bloc an upper hand in the run-up to the elections next year.

All eyes are on the voter turnout, as Oh’s opponents campaigned for a boycott of the referendum which they say is being used by the mayor for his political ambitions.

In order for the results to be valid, voter turnout must reach a third or above.

The Seoul Election Commission plans to release preliminary figures on voter participation from 7 a.m. and every two hours in the morning and every hour in the afternoon till the end of the vote.

Only when the quorum is met, election officials will begin counting the ballots. Preliminary results are expected after 11 p.m., the election body said.

In final hours of campaigning Tuesday, each side made last-minute efforts to encourage more citizens to use, or not to use, their voting right.

The GNP assailed the DP, saying the Democratic Party is undermining the very foundation of democracy by discouraging people from voting.

“If the referendum fails to meet the quorum, the DP is the one to blame,” said Rep. Hwang Woo-yeo, the GNP floor leader.

Ha Tae-kyung, a spokesperson for a coalition of rightist civic groups supporting Oh’s proposal, claimed they are set for victory.

“We’re encouraging companies and public organizations to adjust working hours to allow their employees to participate in the vote,” which will help elevate voter turnout, he said.

Even if the estimated turnout rates come out lower than expected in early hours, that would work to consolidate Oh’s supporters, prompting them to go to the polling booths, he said.

The DP, for its part, called on Seoul voters to make Wednesday a judgment day on Oh whose mismanagement of the city affairs, it says, is evidenced by the landslide disaster in May.

Days of torrential rain triggered multiple landslides on Mount Umyeon, on the southern tip of Seoul, killing 18 people. The Seoul government came under fire for lack of disaster readiness and poor response.

“In this bad vote, no participation is a way of exercising your voting right,” said Rep. Lee Young-sub, a spokesperson for the DP.

By Lee Sun-young (