In his desperate challenge to the opposition-dominated city council over the school free lunch issue, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has proposed a referendum in the capital city. Thus he is offering himself as the gladiator for the conservative forces in what can be a preview of the 2012 presidential election.
The 50-year-old mayor in his second term said he could not tolerate the lives of the 10 million people of Seoul being “abandoned under the populist adventures” of the leftist opposition that holds sway in the city council. He warned that the left’s “populism tsunami” offering free medical services, free child care and halved college tuition in addition to free lunch at elementary and middle schools would ruin the state finances if it is not halted in the capital city.
To carry out his referendum plan, unprecedented in the capital city, the mayor has to clear multiple obstacles. First he should get the consent of the city council for the vote, which is hardly likely considering that the opposition Democratic Party controls 70 percent of the total 114 seats of the city legislature. An alternative is to get the signatures of at least 5 percent of the total eligible voters. A minimum one-third of registered voters should cast their ballots and more than half of them should support the mayor to nullify the city council’s edict to provide free school lunches.
In its 2011 budget deliberations, the city council set aside 69.5 billion won ($62 million) for the free lunch while cutting budgets for some of the city administration’s major projects such as an opera house in the middle of the Han River and a canal linking the river to the West Sea. The entire expenses for the City Hall’s public relations office were also slashed, putting financial constraints on the city’s publicity activities.
The liberal-conservative war at the local administration level has raged since the local elections last June, which remarkably increased liberal-leftist presence in city halls and councils across the country. The opposition’s revamped welfare programs require an additional outlay of some 24 trillion won nationwide, or 8 percent of the total 309 trillion won national budget, while their proponents present no plausible plans to secure the necessary funds.
Since the Seoul City Council passed the edict on free lunch on Nov. 18, the mayor and the council’s majority opposition have engaged in unlimited power contests. Mayor Oh planned to file a suit with the Supreme Court to nullify the edict but withdrew the plan to bring the issue directly to citizens’ judgment.
His resolute resistance against the extremely partisan politics of the city council is appreciated by many conservative citizens and politicians. Still, there also are watchers who link the mayor’s struggle against the leftist onslaught these days to his presidential bid. Many speculate that Oh’s wrestling with the free lunch issue could be an effort to differentiate himself from the Grand National Party’s other presidential hopefuls such as Park Geun-hye and Kim Moon-soo, who both have recently proposed fairly left-leaning welfare programs.
We are afraid that the free lunch question is being excessively politicized and it is feared to remain at the forefront of political contention up until the presidential election two years away. The Seoul mayor and the city council should make further negotiations to establish a reasonable and financially sustainable school lunch program which could be expanded gradually as the nation becomes more affordable in the years ahead. All that matters in this affair is the health and sentiments of our schoolchildren and political ideologies should not be allowed to interfere.