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Seoul mayor drops presidential bid to go all-in for free lunch vote

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said Friday that he will not run in the next presidential race, rejecting speculation that he is using the upcoming referendum on the city's free school lunch program to boost his political fortunes ahead of next year's election.

"Debates over my political future have hampered the meaning of the referendum on free lunch itself and distorted my sincerity on the vote. I decided to put forth my position on the presidential bid to clear up further misunderstandings," Oh said in a news conference at his office.

"I will not run in the 2012 presidential election," he said.

Oh, however, stopped short of saying whether he will stake his mayoralty on the vote.

Oh's decision was seen as a last-minute attempt to rally public support for his cause to block the opposition-led program to provide all students with free lunch. Oh has denounced the measure as a populist policy weighing on government finances, contending that free lunch should be provided to students in need first.

Opposition parties argue poor students who receive free lunch could be stigmatized at school.

Analysts have widely speculated that the Aug. 24 vote, in which voters will be asked to choose between free lunch for selected students or for all, could determine the political fate of Oh, who has long been considered one of the leading presidential hopefuls.

If the results fall in his favor, it would be widely considered a boon for his political ambitions and could push him forward as a champion of voters weary of excessive welfare outlays with South Korea's current state of development, analysts have said.

Arguing that students from affluent families do not need free lunch, Oh has advocated a program to gradually expand free lunches to schoolchildren to reflect the city's budget and their parents'

earning levels. Oh has repeatedly said South Korea is at a crossroads between "excessive" and "sustainable" welfare.

This is in contrast to the policy of offering free lunches across the board, regardless of income level, which is supported by opposition parties and Seoul's liberal-leaning education chief, Kwak No-hyun.

"There are political forces that still claim we need excessive welfare while the world is still reeling from the shock" of the economic crisis, Oh said. "Somebody should put a brake on welfare populism that weighs on the state budget. Only a smart choice by voters can stop these kinds of practices among politicians, who are swayed by votes."

The prospects of the vote are still uncertain as ballot counting will take place only if one-third of the city's 800,000 eligible voters participate in the vote, the first such poll for Seoul. Opposition parties are encouraging citizens to boycott the vote to nullify the referendum aimed at stopping the free lunch program.

Since South Korea adopted residents' referendums in 2004, local governments have held only three polls to reflect public opinion on administrative affairs. (Yonhap News)

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