“Are you in favor of providing free school lunch ― by stages until 2014 ― for students from families in the lower 50 percent income level?”
“Are you in favor of providing free school lunch for all students regardless of their families’ income level ― from this year at elementary schools and from next year at middle schools?”
The above are the two questions that will be asked to Seoul citizens when a referendum is held late in August at the initiative of Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon. A coalition of some 160 conservative civic groups that has supported Mayor Oh in his showdown with the Democratic Party-dominated city council on the free school lunch controversy has successfully collected citizens’ signatures beyond the minimum required number to request a city-wide referendum.
The wording may be modified a little, as the DP members in the city council raised objection to some expressions. But the choice will be between all students and the poorer half as beneficiaries of the welfare program. And the capital city will be stirred by a costly and noisy partisan campaign which will likely be a prelude to the parliamentary and presidential elections next year.
The local referendum law prohibits direct involvement of political parties in referendum at local autonomous units but their provincial and municipal branches can engage in a variety of publicity activities to collect votes. The city will have to spend up to 18 billion won ($17 million) to hold the poll, in addition to expenses to publicize its position as a directly concerned party.
It is truly regrettable that the dispute over feeding our children at school has developed to a political conflict of this magnitude. A liberal surge in last year’s local elections brought about the opposition DP’s dominance of the city council and installed a left-wing figure as the education chief of the capital city for the first time. The reelected conservative mayor soon clashed with the city council as it passed an edict to support new Education Superintendent Kwak No-hyun’s policy of providing free lunches for all elementary students.
Oh Se-hoon was compelled to resist the city council’s interference with city administration with its budget power. But many wonder whether Oh would still have opted for a free-school-lunch referendum, unprecedented in municipal or national politics anywhere in the world, if he did not have presidential ambitions. Leaders of his Grand National Party shared apprehension about Oh’s referendum venture which will have a serious ripple effect on the party.
However, they mostly have shifted to supporting Oh since the National Anti-Populism Union collected enough signatures to request the vote and the welfare populism issue emerged as the vital political agenda that will dominate the elections next year. Media opinion polls forecasting Oh’s victory also pushed the ruling party to offer positive help to the Seoul mayor.
The conservative forces regard the free lunch vote as a good opportunity to stem the tide of the populism offensive of the leftists which has stretched to free medical services, half-price university tuition and other areas. They wanted to draw a Maginot line in the so-called grassroots-friendly policies, reminded by President Lee Myung-bak’s recent exhortation to take the center-right course instead of veering into an obscure center-left one.
The risk is too high for both Mayor Oh and the opposition members of the city council, and their supporters in the rival parties. As for Oh, a defeat in the vote will mean an early exit from the presidential race, although he hinted he would still not give up his mayorship. An opposition loss in the referendum in Seoul would mark a turning of tide after a winning streak in parliamentary by-elections and local elections over the past three and a half years.
A little more than a month is left until the referendum, a one-day event which critics say will cost nearly a third of the money needed to give free lunches to all elementary school students in Seoul for a year. The possibility of a compromise is not totally closed, as both sides now argue about implementing their respective plans “in stages.” Standing on the brink of a precipice, they should seek a sincere dialogue to find a win-win solution, which still looks not impossible.