Mayor Oh takes big gamble on lunch referendum

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Mayor Oh takes big gamble on lunch referendum

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon will officially ask the Seoul Metropolitan Council next Monday for a citywide referendum to decide the fate of the free school lunch program, and if it refuses, he may ask Seoul residents to force a referendum through petition.

“Mayor Oh will submit a request asking the council to put the free school lunches to a vote in a residents’ referendum,” Seoul Metropolitan Government spokesman Lee Jong-hyun said yesterday.

His chances of success are low because the Seoul Metropolitan Council is controlled by Democratic Party councilors, who on Monday denounced the proposed referendum as “political maneuvering” and rejected the idea. The DP urged Oh to respect the program, which officially became law last week.

“Mayor Oh’s suggestion is political maneuvering to avoid responsibility for causing a deadlock between the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the council,” said DP spokesman Oh Seung-rok.

The DP says it will go ahead with its lunch plan in public elementary schools starting in March using funds from the Seoul Office of Education and district offices. It can easily reject the referendum request because 79 of the 114 city councilors are from the DP while just 29 are from Oh’s GNP.

Political observers say Oh is likely to turn to a second option: encouraging Seoul residents to sign a petition to place the referendum on the ballot.

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, Oh would need to gather signatures from one-twentieth of Seoul’s 8.36 million eligible voters, or 418,005 people. Furthermore, at least a third of eligible voters must vote to make a referendum’s result valid.

Because Oh is forbidden by law from initiating a petition campaign, it will have to be spearheaded by parents or education associations that oppose the free school lunch program. Conservative groups supporting Oh said yesterday that they will begin collecting signatures to place the referendum on the ballot.

Both ruling and opposition political circles are carefully watching the school meal program battle.

DP floor leader Park Jie-won said Mayor Oh shouldn’t waste taxpayer’s money on a referendum.

“An estimated 12 billion won [$10.7 million] would be spent on holding a referendum,” Park said in a meeting with senior DP officials yesterday. “It’s more desirable to use the money to feed starving students. The June 2 local election already showed the public’s sentiment on free school meals.”

The GNP supports Oh’s showdown over school lunches because it thinks the DP wants to champion even broader, more expensive welfare policies, such as a free public health service program.

“Oh is making this occasion an opportunity to fight leftists,” a GNP official said. “Oh is leading the battle and his move is being watched by conservatives.”

By Kim Mi-ju []
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