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Mayor Oh’s failed gambit to weigh on political future

Aug. 24, 2011 - 22:25 By
Seoul City’s vote on Wednesday was ostensibly about where to spend taxpayer money, but Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon clearly showed that the vote was more about him when he wiped away tears and kneeled in front of TV cameras last week. 

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon speaks during a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday, shortly after the referendum was declared invalid due to low voter turnout. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

Oh pledged to quit his job if voter turnout fell below 33.3 percent, linking Seoul City's fiscal policy with his political career.

Only 25.7 percent of Seoul’s eligible voters supported Oh’s bet in which he featured himself as the icon of conservatism, sacrificing himself to fight “welfare populism.”

Now he has to keep his word and Seoul City will have to spend some 31 billion won, according to the national election watchdog, for a mayoral by-election to pick his successor.

He will also have to activate Plan B for his presidential ambitions. The 50-year-old, second-term mayor vowed not to run in the presidential election next year in a bid to quench speculation that he sought to raise his profile as a possible presidential candidate through the referendum, but he emphasized in a recent media interview that he was “still young.” Some observers construe that he may run for president sometime after the next presidential race.

For now, the timing of his resignation is a hot issue as it can influence the ruling Grand National Party’s run-up to the general and presidential elections next year.

If Oh steps down by Sept. 30, the mayoral by-election will be held on Oct. 26 by law. If he resigns after that, the next mayor will be selected alongside the April 11 general elections next year.

Even some ruling party lawmakers, in addition to the main opposition Democratic Party, have called on Oh to immediately step down so the by-election can be held in October.

If the vote takes place on Oct. 26, its results will be interpreted as a barometer of public sentiment less than a half year ahead of the general elections, allowing the presidential race to dominate the nation earlier than usual.

Oh’s failed gambit left the GNP’s pro-Lee majority, which counted Oh as one of its top presidential hopefuls, disappointed and wary.

The presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae found solace in the fact that the number of voters this time ― some 2.16 million ― exceeded the number of people who voted for Seoul Education Office superintendent Kwak No-hyun last year ― 1.46 million. Kwak, who drove the free lunch program for all students, boycotted the plebiscite.

Fears of an early lame duck status looms, nevertheless, as President Lee went out to cast his absentee ballot last week before leaving for his three-nation tour in Central Asia.

“Clearly, it will deal a blow to the ruling party and the president,” a Cheong Wa Dae official said. “Oh will have to discuss the timing of his resignation with the ruling party.”

Some in Cheong Wa Dae, on the other hand, expect former GNP chairwoman Park Geun-hye, who leads a faction of about a third of GNP legislators, to lose ground as she, despite her standing as the party’s strongest presidential contender, stood aside and did little about the plebiscite.

By Kim So-hyun (