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Parties square off over school meals

Seoul mayor lambasts attempts to discourage voting in referendum on Aug. 24


Rival parties campaigned for and against Seoul City’s upcoming poll on a controversial free school meal program on the national holiday Monday, striving to sway citizens’ oppinions less than 10 days before rare referendum on the issue.

The Seoul city government is set to hold the vote on Aug. 24, asking residents whether they approve of the opposition party-led plan to provide all students with free lunches.

The prospects for the vote are still uncertain as ballot counting will take place only if one-third of the city’s 800,000 eligible voters participate, the first such poll for Seoul. 
Citizens walk past a banner at a subway station promoting Seoul City’s Aug. 24 vote on the free school meal plan on Monday. (Yonhap News)
Citizens walk past a banner at a subway station promoting Seoul City’s Aug. 24 vote on the free school meal plan on Monday. (Yonhap News)

Claiming such a “populist policy” will only weigh on the finances of citizens, Mayor Oh Se-hoon and his ruling Grand National Party suggested first asking residents how they feel about the issue. They believe meals should be provided only to students in need.

Left-leaning opposition parties, however, believe the ruling bloc’s plan would stigmatize students from underprivileged households.

While residents of Seoul’s relatively affluent southern region are said to support the ruling party’s position on the issue, most people in the northern side believe everyone should get free meals, analysts say.

Holding a press conference at the GNP headquarters Monday, Mayor Oh, who recently gave up his presidential bid to avoid political speculation over the vote, urged the opposition party to “stop wrongly leading” voters.

“A political party that tries to discourage citizens from exercising their legal right to vote will later be punished for its apparent intention to create false tensions among different social classes,” he said. “Our people are wise. They will make the right decision between sustainable welfare and excessive, populist welfare.”

Oh also called on the opposition party to help pass a government-pushed bill allowing parents to apply for free school meals without revealing the names of their children.

“There is no sense in demanding to use this amount of money over a problem that can be solved so simply,” Oh said.

On Friday, Oh promised not to run for president next year in an apparent attempt to end speculation he is pushing ahead with the costly vote to gain popularity ahead of the election.

The ruling party put up about 1,400 banners all over the city and held campaigns in the downtown area, asking voters to vote people on the issue.

Lee Jong-gu, heading the GNP body specializing the free meal vote, said that heads of electoral districts that fail to exceed the “one-third” voter turnout will be subject to punishment by the party’s Supreme Council.

Analysts speculate that the Aug. 24 vote, in which voters will be asked to choose between free lunches for selected students or for all, could determine the fate for the ruling party ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections next year.

The main opposition party, meanwhile, asked voters not to take part in the poll altogether to show the ruling bloc their disapproval toward the move to call off the longstanding welfare plan.

The left-leaning Democratic Party is also considering the option of taking legal measures against the GNP for allegedly violating laws on voting by adding unrelated issues on its banners. The ruling party’s pledges to provide free after-school education and extra support for students of the underprivileged sector instead of free meals for everyone are not directly related to the upcoming poll and therefore are illegal, the party claims.

The party filed separate administrative litigation together with a coalition of civic groups last month, claiming the vote was procedurally illegal. The administrative court is expected to make decision as early as Tuesday.

Lee In-young, head of the DP’s free meal program committee, expressed confidence saying it is unlikely for more than one third of eligible voters to take part in the poll.

“Recent surveys show that an increasing number of citizens are planning not to vote to secure free meal for their children,” he said. “Voters are no fools. They know that Mayor Oh pushed ahead with the referendum for political reasons.”

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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