Voter turnout falls short of 33.3 percent to render referendum void
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon bows at a press conference at City Hall, central Seoul, Wednesday, after the referendum on free school meals became void with the voter turnout falling short of a required quorum of 33.3 percent. / Korea Times photo by Sohn Yong-seok
By Kim Rahn
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon lost his battle to vote down a free school lunch program as a sufficient number of residents failed to show up at polling stations.
The referendum on free school meals went annulled Wednesday, with the voter turnout failing to reach the quorum to make the vote valid. The turnout came in at 25.7 percent, far lower than the required 33.3 percent, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Election Commission.
The failure to reach the turnout quorum means Mayor Oh should leave his post as he wagered his job on the result of the referendum.
“I humbly accept the result. But it’s regrettable that we can’t even count the ballots which contain citizens’ wishes,” Oh said at a press conference right after the vote ended. “It was the only chance that we could check out the right direction where the nation’s welfare policy should go. I’m sorry that we’ve lost that chance.”
Oh didn’t specify exactly when to quit and left the press conference site hurriedly. But his aides said he will announce his position in one or two days.
If Oh quits before Sept. 30, his post will be filled through a by-election on Oct. 26. If he quits after that, the by-election for next mayor will take place along with the parliamentary election on April 11 next year.
His defeat is expected to deal a severe blow to the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) in the run-up to the general and presidential elections next year.
The government and the ruling party will be under immense pressure to overhaul their welfare policies, while the major opposition Democratic Party gained a major leverage in pushing for bolder steps to promote welfare, analysts said.
Opposition groups, which campaigned to reject the referendum against Oh’s policy to provide free lunches only to poorer students, said citizens chose “general welfare” for all people.
Seoul Metropolitan Council Chairman Heo Kwang-tai, who spearheaded the full-scale meal program, said it was a victory for Seoul citizens.
“Now no one should monopolize city affairs for his or her own political purpose, taking citizens as hostage. It showed one person’s wrong decision can hamper city affairs and the development of local autonomy,” he said in a statement.
Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Superintendant Kwak No-hyun, who also confronted with Oh on the issue, said, “Citizens consented to the idea that welfare in education, especially in public education, should be provided as generally as possible regardless of parents’ financial status.”
The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) called for Oh’s immediate resignation, saying good citizens sternly punished the bad mayor.
The GNP, however, said it was virtually Oh’s victory, saying the turnout reached 25.7 percent despite the DP’s boycott campaign.
As the vote was annulled, school lunches will be provided as they are now _ free meals to all first to fourth graders at elementary schools, except for fourth graders in four districts run by district heads of the ruling GNP.
From early in the morning, the turnout remained lower than that seen in other local or general elections.
The number of voters was high in the morning as many people cast ballots before going to work, but it dropped markedly in the afternoon.
The 25.7-percent total turnout, including the ballots cast last week by absentee voters, was under the 31.4 percent reached during April’s by-election to pick the new head of Jung District in central Seoul, which was also held on a non-holiday.