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Civic groups take legal action against mayor

Petition filed to recall Seoul mayor for pushing ahead with vote on free school meals 


With six days left before Seoul’s first-ever referendum on free school lunches, opponents of the vote have taken legal measures against Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon.

The Aug. 24 plebiscite on free school meal program will determine how many students will receive free school lunches.

Oh and other conservatives advocate expanding free school lunches to underprivileged children in the bottom 50-percent income bracket in stages by 2014 while liberals and opposition parties support expanding free lunches to all elementary school students from 2011 and to all middle school students from 2012.

In the middle of a fierce campaign between the two sides, a citizen came forward on Tuesday to initiate a referendum to recall Oh from office, according to Seoul Election Commission. The citizen surnamed Lee accused Oh of pushing the vote that will take away free meals from some children and neglecting the mayoral duty of protecting citizens’ property and life by cutting the municipal anti-disaster budget.

“He is turning away from welfare for ordinary citizens and instead wasting taxpayers’ money to satisfy his personal ambition,” Lee said.

For the recall referendum to be initiated, about 10 percent of eligible Seoul voters, or more than 820,000 residents, should participate in the signature collection. Then, one-third of voters should cast ballots and more than half of them should agree with the recall just like the referendum on free school meal.

On the same day, a liberal civic group opposing the Aug. 24 plebiscite filed a suit with a Seoul Court, accusing Oh of pushing for what they claim an illegal vote.

The group “Bad Vote Out” held a press conference in front of the court and listed legal and administrative faults in the referendum.

It said Oh has infringed on the Seoul educational superintendent’s right to decide on matters related to free school lunch program. The group also argued that the budget issue directly related to the program should not be dealt in the next week’s referendum. It claimed that about 140,000 signatures collected to initiate the referendum were illegal.

On Tuesday, a Seoul court had rejected an earlier request by an opposition party to suspend the plebiscite on the suspicion that many signatures asking for the vote may have been false or collected doubly.

The civic group also questioned Oh’s true stance on free school lunches. The group claimed Oh changed the scope of the program from students in the bottom 30-percent income bracket to 50 percent for no known reason, and accused him of violating election law that forbids public officials from campaigning.

As the voting turnout is crucial for the plebiscite to be valid, Oh is pushing ahead with a campaign to inform citizens of the voting date and the voting procedures. If the turnout doesn’t exceed 33.3 percent, the referendum itself will be invalidated.

Oh expressed concerns on the voting turnout rate in a meeting with his ruling party colleagues, Thursday. “I am concerned that the voting turnout may not be as high as needed because the plebiscite is scheduled for Wednesday, a working weekday, and many people are on leave for summer vacations,” he said. “But if we cooperate (with the ruling party) to raise the voting turnout in our campaign, it will not be a hard task.”

He also said that he is still agonizing whether to stay in the post or resign over the referendum results: “I am discussing the matter with my party and watching the public opinion about it.”

Oh promised not to run for president next year last Friday in an apparent attempt to end speculation that he is pushing ahead with the costly plebiscite to boost his popularity ahead of the election.

But he didn’t not make clear on whether he will resign from the mayoral position, which has been regarded as a critical factor in swaying voter’s sentiment and political path for Oh and the ruling Grand National Party, according to analysts.

However, he hinted at the press conference that he might announce resignation from the post regarding result of the vote later.

Absentee ballot started on Thursday and will continue to Friday. About 102,832 are registered to cast absentee ballot. There are 8,387,282 eligible voters for the Seoul first referendum and at least one-third of the voters, 2,792,965, should cast ballot in order for the vote to be valid.

By Lee Woo-young (wylee@heraldcorp.com)
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