Mayor Oh declares war on free lunches and populism

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Mayor Oh declares war on free lunches and populism

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon declared an all-out war on “populist welfare policies” this week after refusing to institute the city budget passed by his political opponents shortly before the New Year. The budget mandates a free lunch program for Seoul schools, which he opposes, and also slashed funding for some of his pet projects.

“Election pledges of populist welfare policies will become increasingly more unyielding in next year’s general election and presidential election if the free school meal program is implemented,” Oh told a meeting of the Grand National Party commemorating the new year on Wednesday. He told ranking officials of the GNP that he “stands at the front of the war with the issue of free school meals.” Wednesday’s meeting was attended by GNP Chairman Ahn Sang-soo, floor leader Kim Moo-sung and Minister without Portfolio Lee Jae-oh.

The mayor was supposed to sign the budget bill into law by Tuesday, but he refused. On Thursday, Seoul Metropolitan Council Chairman Heo Kwang-tae officially promulgated the bill, and it’s now law.

The Oh-controlled Seoul Metropolitan Government announced Thursday that it will ask the Supreme Court to judge whether the passage of this year’s budget was valid.

“The Seoul city government will take this matter to the Supreme Court for sure,” said Lee Jong-hyun, spokesman with the Seoul Metropolitan Government, “and it will also look into seeking an injunction over free school meals from [the Seoul Administrative Court] to block the illegally passed bill from being enforced.”

The political deadlock between the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Seoul Metropolitan Council has been going on for over six months since the Democratic Party won control of the city council in the June 2 local elections. The council’s biggest power is over spending by the city, and it passed a 20.5 trillion won ($18.2 billion) budget on Dec. 30, 2009. GNP councilors who support Oh boycotted the vote and accused the Democrats of railroading the budget through.

The budget was 25.7 billion won less than what Oh’s Seoul Metropolitan Government requested, and it includes 69.5 billion won for the free school meal program. It slashed funding for some of Mayor Oh’s major projects for the city, including the Han River Renaissance Project.

According to the budget, Oh is required to oversee the meal program by establishing a meal service support center that monitors transparent management of the program and maintains a smooth supply of environmental-friendly agricultural products for school meals. The meal program will start for elementary schools this year and be extended to middle schools starting 2012.

Though the 69.5 billion won meal budget is only 0.3 percent of the city’s entire budget, Oh said giving in to populist welfare policies will undermine Seoul’s financial position in the future. Oh argued the city should provide free meals to students from low-income families and not all students.

The liberals say that would stigmatize poorer students who receive the lunches.

In a press conference Thursday, Chairman Heo demanded Oh to accept the budget.

“The position of the mayor of Seoul isn’t to lord over citizens and it shouldn’t be to fulfill an individual’s political desires,” Heo said. “It’s a position that should center its efforts on improving the quality of living and happiness index of Seoul citizens.

“Free school meals aren’t for poor children nor rich children,” he said. “The intent of the free meal bill is to provide an environment where children, the future of this nation, wouldn’t get their feelings hurt [for being unable to afford a meal] and wouldn’t have to walk on egg shells in regards to other classmates [of different economic backgrounds],” Heo said. “It’s inappropriate to say free school meals are ‘meals that benefit the rich’ or ‘a populist policy that ruins the nation.’ The program simply gives our children a warm meal.”

Meanwhile, an association of the heads of 25 Seoul district offices Thursday released a statement calling on the city government and council to stop fighting and work on implementing welfare policies.

Of the 25 district offices in Seoul, 21 district office heads won their seats with DP tickets.

Four heads of district offices backed by the GNP - Gangnam, Seocho, Songpa and Jungnang - denounced the statement and argued that it was released without their consultation. “We don’t agree with what is written in the statement,” the four GNP district office heads said in a statement.


By Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]
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