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Seoul to hold first plebiscite vote on free school meals

Seoul City will hold its first plebiscite vote in August on the controversial free school meal ordinance, which was approved last year by the city council.

The plebiscite vote, introduced in Korea in 2004, has been carried out three times to make important policy decisions in other regions. But the Seoul referendum will be the first one to have been demanded by citizens.

The Commission for Anti-Welfare Populism, an association of some 160 conservative civic groups, filed a petition Thursday demanding a referendum on free school meals after completing a signature-collecting campaign over the past four months.

The group submitted more than 800,000 signatures, almost double the minimum legal requirement from 418,000 people, or five percent of the city’s 8.36 million voters.

“Amid confusion surrounding populist welfare policies, it will be a national opportunity to look at the current situation seriously,” Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said Thursday in a press conference, making an official announcement of the vote.

After about 60 to 70 days of preparation, the referendum is expected to be held after Aug. 20, the city said.

In December, Seoul City Council, dominated by the members of the main opposition Democratic Party, approved an ordinance offering free lunches at all elementary schools from March.

However, the city government continued to protest against the decision, while Oh has refused to attend the council’s plenary session over the past months.

Amid the ongoing power struggles, the association of conservative civic groups started a signature-gathering campaign for the petition demanding a plebiscite vote.

“Under the related law, the city government, educational office and the council should follow whatever the vote outcome is. And then, I think, the long controversies could end,” said Oh, reaffirming that “welfare policy should put priority on underprivileged people.”

In order for the voting result to be valid, at least one third, or 33.3 percent, of the city’s qualified voters must participate. The outcome of the vote will be determined by majority.

As the vote is to be held during the summer vacation season, the outlook over the final turnout was mixed.

In the by-elections on April 27, the voter turnout in the high-publicized Bundang race was 49.1 percent, while only 31.3 percent of voters voted for the district head of Jung-gu.

“As related discussions will take place actively in the coming months, the turnout of voters as well as people’s interests in the issue will grow from now on,” Oh said.

He also said, regardless of the voting result, the city would continue to support free meals for children from low-income households.

Meanwhile, the council’s DP members criticized the planned vote for being illegal, saying the free school meals are a budget issue that cannot be voted on.

They also claimed that illegal practices were rampant during the signature-gathering campaign.

“We will organize a team of 10,000 people to find out illegal cases at the time,” said Kang Hee-yong, a DP member of the council.

By Lee Ji-yoon (