[Viewpoint] Oh should risk his mayoral seat to the referendum

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[Viewpoint] Oh should risk his mayoral seat to the referendum

The Seoul Metropolitan Government’s plan to ask residents their opinion on free school lunches for all through a referendum in August has been pushed back from the public spotlight due to a catastrophic natural disaster and stock market plunge.

Torrential rainstorms and landslides have wreaked havoc around the capital, and a free fall in equity prices around the world following a downgrade in the U.S. sovereign credit rating took a heavy toll on the Korean bourse.

School lunches would be one of the last things on people’s mind when lives and homes are lost and precious investment money is going down the drain. Civilian groups on behalf of conservative and liberal camps are pitching heavily to move public opinion, but the public remains largely uninterested.

The opposition camp is checking its attack strategy amid lukewarm public support. It fears a backlash if it pushes the campaign to boycott the referendum too boisterously under the circumstances. It worries a controversy could only raise public interest in the referendum. The Democratic Party remains on the sidelines largely because of these political concerns.

The Grand National Party is equally lackluster in cheering for the Seoul mayor. It touts Mayor Oh Se-hoon’s action to revoke the Seoul Metropolitan Council’s unilateral decision to provide universal free school lunches, but in no more than words. The GNP floor leader, Hwang Woo-yea, went out of tune by suggesting an even more radical welfare idea of offering free child care. Some GNP members suspect Oh of harboring presidential ambitions.

The referendum is set for Aug. 24. From the current standpoint, the 33.3 percent turnout to make the vote effective looks difficult. An invalid referendum may be what the opposition desires, but it is not an answer.

The referendum asks whether the city government should subsidize lunch for all or just needy students. It looks simple enough but contains greater ideological and philosophical questions.

Voters are being asked to choose between a universal and a selective welfare system. One is based on the logic of fair distribution regardless of a citizen’s wealth and the other argues for welfare benefits for the poor and underprivileged for the economy and efficacy of welfare spending.

The voters’ choice could affect broader welfare policies on child, health and senior citizen care. Some political scholars are ready to add meaning to the outcome as setting our society on the path of capitalism or neo-socialism.

Some may laugh at the hoopla over a local issue. But the issue does not simply involve Seoul citizens. Moreover, a policy direction in the capital city bears symbolic significance. Since the vote can affect the country’s future direction, the public must show tantamount interest.

Welfare is a noble issue for debate. It is also a challenging yet fundamental theme for both the liberal and conservative camps. It is beyond understanding why political parties resist the opportunity to debate and why the opposition wants to strip the voters’ chance to express their opinions.

I want to advise politicians from both camps to stop sidestepping and instead walk to the forefront to speak their mind and expand upon their logic. There is still sufficient time for constructive debate.

Welfare issues can be watered down into populist platforms once campaign season starts. Welfare populism can exact excesses in welfare benefits and empty state coffers. We have seen the consequences develop in many European countries with sophisticated welfare systems. Our society would be making a big stride if experts from both conservative and liberal sides debate welfare policies with the momentum of the referendum.

The mayor should be the first to take the podium. It is Oh who proposed and pursued the referendum. Since he set the stage, he should make sure it ends in success. Oh would receive a blow if the referendum fails to draw the requisite turnout needed to effectuate the results or if it ends in favor of universal free school meals as campaigned by the opposition. If either scenario should occur, he should accept his defeat and step down.

The GNP does not want the referendum to serve as a vote of confidence on Oh. But Oh’s political career would be lost forever if he appears to be clinging to his seat. The public wants to see a strong will and a cool attitude from a politician in defeat as well as in victory.

Oh should show the courage and determination to risk his mayoral seat on the referendum. The public would then believe in his sincerity and address the referendum with seriousness.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Heo Nam-chin
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