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Mayor resigns, parties brace for by-elections

Oh says excessive welfare will increase taxes, place burden on next generation

Oh Se-hoon resigned as mayor of Seoul Friday, as he had pledged, saying he will take responsibility for his failure to thwart an opposition-led plan to give all elementary school students free school meals from next year.

His referendum on the free lunch program was invalidated due to a low voter turnout Wednesday.

“I resign today to assume responsibility for the results of the referendum,” Oh said in a nationally televised news conference.

“I will fulfill my responsibility by stepping down immediately to minimize the political controversy and administrative vacuum caused by my course of action.”
Oh Se-hoon
Oh Se-hoon

During his speech which took about 10 minutes, Oh also said he realized that it was his “remaining duty” to transform the country’s political culture driven by conflicts and schisms into one that promotes healthy discussions.

Oh vowed earlier not to run in the 2012 presidential race in a bid to hush speculation that he sought to raise his profile as a possible presidential candidate through the referendum, but he noted in a recent media interview that he was “still young.”

Some observers say he may run for president sometime after the next presidential election.

Oh stressed in his speech that excessive welfare will bring about an increase in taxes and place a heavy burden on the next generation, adding that he hoped his resignation can spur more in-depth debates on excessive welfare.

Oh’s immediate departure turned the Oct. 26 by-elections, through which eight local administration chiefs, seven metropolitan or provincial councilors and 12 local councilors will also be elected, into a major battle for rival parties.

The race to pick the capital’s mayor is expected to dominate domestic politics over the next two months, with rival parties scrambling to weave game plans to win a post that some say is the second most influential after the president.

Should the ruling party lose the seat to the opposition, political analysts say it could deal a serious blow to the GNP, especially in the Seoul metropolitan area.

Citing concerns that the vote may overshadow legislative activities in the parliamentary session next month, the ruling Grand National Party leadership had urged Oh to resign after Sept. 30 so the mayoral by-election can be held alongside the April general elections next year.

GNP Chairman Hong Joon-pyo expressed anger at Oh’s “unilateral” decision to quit earlier than expected during a meeting with party members in Seoul Friday morning.

Blaming Oh for “placing his personal honor above the nation’s interests or the party,” Hong said he told Oh, who visited his home Thursday night, that he will never see him again.

“Today was the end of Oh Se-hoon,” Hong said.

Hong reportedly said on Thursday that Oh mocked the party leadership three times by unilaterally pushing ahead with the referendum without prior consultations with the party, linking his mayoral post to the voter turnout and reversing his promise to resign in October.

The main opposition Democratic Party, which had called for Oh’s immediate resignation, refrained from commenting directly on Friday’s announcement.

“In light of the victory in the free lunch vote, we have to follow people’s order with a more humble attitude,” DP leader Sohn Hak-kyu said in a senior party meeting.

“We have to make an audacious move to push for a universal welfare program and economic democracy with more confidence.”

By Kim So-hyun (