By Kim Rahn
Will the turnout of the free school lunch vote top 33.3 percent, the quorum to make the referendum valid? That is the big question after Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon announced he will bet his job on Wednesday’s ballot.
Turnout is everything as those opposing the referendum are campaigning to boycott it rather than vote against Oh’s policy, in an attempt to nullify the procedure.
The referendum calls for citizens to select between two options: One to provide free school lunches only to students in low-income brackets, a plan promoted by the mayor; the other to provide the meals to all students regardless of the families’ financial status, a scheme backed by the Seoul Metropolitan Council and the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.
But opposition parties and civic groups supporting the latter option are urging people not to take part in the referendum at all, claiming it is a “bad vote” designed to take food away from students, and is being used as the mayor’s political tool.
As Oh’s opponents are unlikely to cast their ballots following the boycott campaign, many predict that the turnout may not reach 33.3 percent. Public attention to the issue has not been high because it affects a relatively limited group of people.
Recent floods that devastated Seoul and the ongoing financial crisis are expected to put the free meal vote on the backburner of citizens’ priorities.
The mayor’s linking his job to the vote is said to be a final political gambit to boost turnout.
Groups supporting Oh expect the mayor’s decision will help increase voter numbers.
“With Oh’s resolution, his supporters will rush to cast their ballots to save the mayor. We expect the turnout will reach 40 percent,” said Kim Jeong-soo, secretary-general of the National Anti-Populism Union.
The union said if the turnout surpasses 33.3 percent and Oh’s policy is chosen, council Chairman Heo Kwang-tai and education office Superintendant Kwak No-hyun should resign.
On the other hand, a civic coalition campaigning to boycott the referendum said the turnout will remain less than 20 percent. “Now if we boycott the vote, we can change the mayor, too,” a member of the coalition said.
Heo said refusing a vote is a legal way of expressing opinion, urging people not to cast a ballot. “Your mayor didn’t shed a tear when 14 citizens died from last month’s downpour, but why do you cry now?” he said, referring to Oh’s press conference during which the mayor had to stop reading his statement several times to wipe away tears.
“Is your political goal more important than their lives? People say sarcastically that they have seen children crying because they are not given food but never seen an adult crying because he doesn’t want to give food,” he said in a statement.
At the same time, discord among key members of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) is expected to work against Oh, according to analysts.
Despite such negative factors analysts said whether the vote will surpass the critical percentage hinges on how much Oh’s betting his job appeals to conservative citizens.
The two sides on this issue present different grounds on the welfare budget and the “labeling effect” on children.
The union in support of Oh said it will cost 3.3 trillion won per year for the nation to provide free school lunches to all students. “If we offer free school meals to even students of rich families, the budget for those from poor families and school facility improvements will be cut drastically,” it claimed.
The coalition, on the other hand, said a free school meal is the right of all schoolchildren and the state’s responsibility. It is not right that “half the students in a classroom pay for the meal and the rest eat for free with this feeling of being stamped as ‘the poor,’” it said. “The vote will only hurt those children.”
Regarding the claim that children getting free meals will suffer from being seen as poor, the union said community centers, not schools, divide students according to financial status, saying students will not know which classmates are subject to the free meal and which are not.
The coalition claimed the ratio of Seoul’s spending on welfare out of its total budget was 14th among 16 cities and provinces nationwide, but the union said Seoul was fifth according to the Public Administration and Security Ministry’s report. The former group also claimed Seoul didn’t allot a budget for meals for the poor, while the latter said the city allocated about 20 billion won.