A referendum to decide the fate of the city's free school lunch program was going smoothly amid tensions on Wednesday, local election officials said as the vote has emerged as a hot-button issue ahead of next year's crucial national elections.
The referendum is about whether to enforce an opposition-led free school lunch program for all students or favor the conservative mayor's proposal for free lunch for students whose family income falls into the bottom 50 percent.
But it is also expected to determine the fate of Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) as he vowed to stake his position on the result.
As of 2 p.m., eight hours after voting began at 2,206 polling stations across the capital, about 17.1 percent of the capital's nearly 8.4 million eligible voters cast ballots, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Election Commission.
The turnout is far lower than originally expected, causing embarrassment for the city government and the ruling party.
Turnout is crucial as the ballots will only be counted if more than one-third of voters participate under the current law.
The poll's turnout has been highest in Gangnam, a well-off district in southern Seoul, and among the capital's middle-aged and elderly residents.
In a controversial move, Oh gave a tearful news conference Sunday in which he said he would resign as mayor if voter turnout fell short of the one-third cutoff.
In the event that Oh's proposal fails, all students at Seoul's elementary and middle schools will receive free lunch, regardless of their parents' income levels.
Oh and his supporters say the program should be introduced in stages, as it could open the doors wide for more populist polices that could weigh on the state budget.
His opponents argue that poor students who receive free lunch could be stigmatized at school.
After the opposition-controlled Seoul Metropolitan Council passed the free-lunch-for-all bill last December, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education in March began providing first through fourth graders with free lunch and it plans to expand the program to include fifth and sixth graders so that all elementary school students are covered.
If voter turnout exceeds 33.3 percent despite the opposition-led boycott campaign, it would be a boon for the mayor and his ruling party, which accused the program of being a "welfare populist" policy.
If the referendum ends in failure, either due to low turnout or a majority in favor of the opposition, it would deal a serious blow to Oh.
With Oh's resignation in mind, opposition parties and liberal activists have fiercely called for a boycott of the vote.
The leadership of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) criticized Oh for turning the referendum into "a de facto confidence vote" by staking his position on the vote.
"Oh and the GNP, who divided the nation into pieces, hurt the minds of children and are now ignoring laws, will be sternly judged by Seoul citizens," DP Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu warned during a party leadership meeting.
The GNP is striving to raise the voter turnout.
Hong Joon-pyo, chairman of the party, appealed for citizen's active participation in the vote.
"Seoul citizens are asked to help activate future referendums on policies by participating in the first such referendum in the capital," Hong told reporters after voting.
Since South Korea adopted residents' referendums in 2004, local governments have only polled the public three times on administrative affairs, with this being the first such vote for Seoul.
Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik visited a polling station near his Samcheongdong office together with his wife to cast votes.
"I participated in the referendum out of the thought that it is proper to exercise my legal rights and express my opinion as a citizen," he said.
Polls are set to close at 8 p.m. (Yonhap)