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Campaign heats up for vote on school meals

Election commission bans mayor from picketing, probes education board for ‘encouraging’ vote boycott


The nation’s conservative and liberal forces, siding with Seoul government and education authority respectively, exchanged barbs Friday, arguing about whether citizens should participate in the upcoming plebiscite on free school lunches.

They also clashed over a decision by the city’s election commission to ban Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon from continuing a picketing event.

“Looking at a series of rulings by the election commission, we cannot but think that the commission, which should stand neutral and impartial, is siding with the education office, by glossing over its illegal vote boycott campaign,” Lee Jong-hyun, the city’s spokesperson, told a press conference Friday.

The Seoul Election Commission ruled a day earlier that the mayor’s picketing, if continued, would amount to a breach of plebiscite rules that prohibit public officeholders from taking sides. 
In the left photo, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon holds a sign reading “Plebiscite on Aug. 24” at a street in Seoul on Thursday. In the right photo, officials of the liberal opposition Democratic Party hold signs reading “Let’s not participate in a bad vote.” (Yonhap News)
In the left photo, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon holds a sign reading “Plebiscite on Aug. 24” at a street in Seoul on Thursday. In the right photo, officials of the liberal opposition Democratic Party hold signs reading “Let’s not participate in a bad vote.” (Yonhap News)

From Monday on, Oh held a one-person rally in Seoul streets, holding a sign reading “plebiscite on Aug. 24.”

The election authority said it could be seen as asking citizens to participate in the vote.

The referendum is aimed at invalidating a plan to give free lunches to all elementary school students starting this year. The mayor had vetoed the program, initiated and endorsed by the city’s opposition-dominated council.

Oh’s liberal opponents are leading a campaign to boycott the referendum.

“Let’s not participate in the vote, which was called to aid someone’s political ambitions,” said Rep. Sohn Hak-gyu, the chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party, referring to mayor Oh.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, run by liberal-minded superintendent Kwak Noh-hyun, came under fire for sending out email messages to teachers and parents that said, “A boycott is a way of exercising your voting rights.”

Earlier, the office took the heat for scheduling a two-day get-away event for about 270 school principles and education officials on the voting day.

“The election commission should thoroughly investigate these which amount to systematic obstruction of voting rights,” said Rep. Kim Jung-kwon of the conservative Grand National Party. Seoul mayor Oh is affiliated with the ruling party.

The Education Office said the event was scheduled before the plebiscite date was fixed and that it has shortened the programs so that the participants can arrive in Seoul around noon on the voting day.

At polling stations throughout the capital Wednesday, Seoul citizens will be asked to choose between two options: the original plan of giving free lunches to all elementary school students this year and all middle school students from 2012, or Oh’s proposed alternative of giving free school lunches only to students in the bottom 50 percent income bracket in stages by 2014.

In order for the vote to be valid, at least one third of the city’s qualified voters, or 2,792,965, must participate. The outcome of the vote will be determined by majority.

By Lee Sun-young (milaya@heraldcorp.com)
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