[Viewpoint] The mayor rolls the dice

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[Viewpoint] The mayor rolls the dice

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has pledged to pursue a referendum to ask Seoul residents how they feel about the unilateral municipal council ordinance to allow free lunch in elementary schools. The Seoul Metropolitan Government says it has enough signatures for the vote and the legal grounds to hold a referendum next month.

Oh said a direct vote is necessary to send a message to politicians engrossed in the populism race. Politicians should indeed be scorned and censored for trotting out policies to win votes without considering the consequences. But we have to ask whether a referendum is the best solution to teach politicians a lesson.

The controversy all started when opposition Democratic Party members won a majority of seats on the Seoul City Council in last year’s local elections. During his first term, Oh and the city government rarely clashed with the city council, as both were dominated by the ruling Grand National Party. But city governance faced challenges from the opposition-majority council after the Democratic Party’s victory in the capital. The confrontation peaked when the city council passed an ordinance to make school meals free last December - without the agreement of the mayor, who opposed the plan. Oh refused to attend the council for six months and declared he would pursue a referendum to nullify the plan.

If we put this situation into the context of the central government, it would go like this: the president is confronted with a legislature dominated by the opposition. The legislature passes bills the president disagrees with. In retaliation, the president cuts off all communication and contact with the legislature for six months and announces he will hold a direct vote to prove his point. How would the public and press react to such a situation?

A referendum is an instrument in a direct democracy to ask the public whether they approve or disapprove of a pivotal issue. But it is not always ideal in a representative democracy, where a direct vote is often employed by the president or local government head to bypass the legislature on a certain decision.

French President Charles de Gaulle was a fan of the referendum, preferring it over tedious parliamentary debates. He administered such votes five times during his time in office. But after his retirement, he wrote in his memoir that he believed the referendum is an act of absolute power. In appearance, such a vote seems to respect the rights of the people, but it is in fact an attempt to undermine civil rights and serve the purpose of one individual.

If the Seoul city government does not have a self-serving purpose, it must present a more persuasive argument for the referendum.

A universal vote or electoral referendum has political risks. De Gaulle associated the outcome of a referendum as a vote of confidence in his leadership. But he stepped down in April 1969 when the public disapproved of a vote on his plan to reform the administration and the senate. In a way, he fulfilled a promise to the public, yet he set a poor precedent of leaving office before his term ended in a presidential system that assures presidential tenure. An elected president or mayor has the responsibility to administer governance during his legally given term. A direct vote will be a political risk for Oh. He may have to step down if he receives an unfavorable result, and Seoul residents would have to vote on a new mayor less than two years after his election.

Even if Oh gets the result he wants with the referendum, we cannot expect opposition council members to cooperate with the mayor in the future. Against such odds, I have to wonder if the city government’s plan is worth the trouble, and expense, just to settle its differences with the council members?

Oh says he is seeking a referendum to oppose the current trend toward populist policies. But populism is a direct appeal to the public without the process of debate. In that sense, Oh, too, is succumbing to populism. It is a pity that he has failed to find a better way to fight the opposition-dominated council.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Kang Won-taek
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