Members of civic organizations opposed to the referendum to withdraw the free school lunch program hold up signboards reading “Bad Vote: No” along with wads of money during a performance at the Han River. (Photo by Shin So-young)
In a press conference yesterday, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon announced that he would resign as mayor if the currently planned referendum on free school lunches is invalidated. A referendum is invalidated when the voting rate is less than 33.3 percent. Oh says that he will put his mayorship on the line with the voting outcome in order to fulfill his responsibility. In addition to wronging the Seoul citizens who elected him, this decision to tie his mayorship with the free school lunch referendum is a flagrant case of illegal election campaigning.
When Oh recently declared out of nowhere that he would not be running in the presidential election, observers predicted he might use the resignation card as a next step. His doing so two days before the vote is a tactic intended to drive up the voting rate, making this nothing more than a self-concocted “hostage crisis.” For this reason, even critics within the Grand National Party (GNP) are saying Oh is overplaying his hand with the referendum. It is a policy vote, they are saying, not a vote of confidence in his mayorship.
From the outset, residents have been mobilized for this referendum according to Oh’s script and with his support. Regardless of its beginnings, however, the mayor needs to fulfill his responsibilities as a fair administrator once the voting process has started. For him to adopt the characterization of a judge and engage in incitement and intimidation to encourage voting in one direction is not only immoral, but also unlawful.
Oh tearfully declared that he could not ignore the voice of conscience, claiming that it would be impossible to develop into true democracy without battling welfare populism. His words lack authenticity. The calls for expanded welfare services are a demand and task of the times, and the discussions are just now in their beginning stages. Oh defeated himself first of all when he adopted free school lunches as a target in defiance of this trend.
The South Korean Constitution clearly states that compulsory education is to be free of charge, and in the most recent local elections, a Seoul Education Superintendent and a majority of city councilors and district office head candidates pledging free school meals were voted in. Even the cities and provinces outside the Seoul area for the most part offer free lunches to all students, despite their low degree of financial independence. It is difficult to understand how the 100 percent financially self-reliant city of Seoul can spend tremendous amounts of money on Mayor Oh’s projects like the Han River Renaissance, yet insists it cannot provide meals to young students.
With a referendum, residents participate in local government through an independent expression of will to address weaknesses in representative democracy. Unfortunately, the city of Seoul’s first referendum has been distorted into a government-fabricated vote provoked by Oh’s obstinacy. It is difficult to find any meaning in participating. Oh was dead in the water as mayor the moment he moved for the referendum against the wishes of Seoul’s Metropolitan Council and citizenry, so there is nothing novel about his declaring his intent to resign.
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