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[Editorial] Poll on free lunches

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon announced Friday that his metropolitan government has begun to take steps to hold a referendum on free school lunches. The referendum was requested by a coalition of conservative civic groups opposed to the controversial free meal program launched by the city’s education office in March.

The coalition, dubbed the National Anti-Populism Union, submitted Thursday more than 800,000 signatures that it had collected from citizens since February. The vote is likely to be held in late August if signatures from eligible voters exceed 418,000, or 5 percent of the city’s 8.36 million voters as required by law.

The referendum is about a choice between universal welfare and selective welfare. Universal welfare is advocated by the main opposition Democratic Party. In line with the DP’s policy, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, led by a superintendent from the DP, currently offers free lunches to all elementary school students and plans to expand the program next year to cover all middle school students.

In contrast, selective welfare is championed by Mayor Oh. He views the current lunch scheme as populist because it provides lunches free of charge to students whose parents can well afford it. He says subsidizing students from affluent families is unfair because it reduces the funds that could be used for students in need.

Hence the referendum will be framed as a choice between two plans ― the current program versus an alternative that would expand the free lunch benefit gradually by 2014 but limit the scope of beneficiaries to students from the poorest 50 percent of households.

The proposed poll comes amid an ever intensifying debate on welfare. Political parties have been fueling the debate by competitively presenting populist welfare programs in their bid to win the hearts of voters. The outcome of the referendum is expected to influence the direction of the debate.

The vote is also likely to affect the political future of Mayor Oh, one of the presidential hopefuls of the ruling Grand National Party. In January, Oh declared war on the free meal plan, putting his head on the block. He was convinced that if he failed to block it, there would be no way to stop the DP’s push for other populist welfare projects.

On Thursday, when the coalition delivered three truckloads of signatures to him, Oh said that the referendum would give Seoul citizens a chance to put an end to welfare populism in Korea.

While Oh pins his hopes on the poll, the odds are stacked heavily against him. In the first place, for a valid referendum, more than one third of the eligible voters must vote. Since the vote will be held on a weekday, voter turnout could be low. In 10 of the 19 by-elections held since 2000, the turnout rate was below 33 percent. Oh will have to make extra efforts to get people out to vote.

Even if voter turnout exceeds 33 percent, there is no guarantee that more than half of the voters will cast a ballot in favor of Oh’s proposal. To muster support for his plan, Oh desperately needs the backing of the ruling GNP. But he cannot expect his party to be fully behind him because the GNP has become keen to emulate the DP’s welfare policy. Some GNP lawmakers even urged Oh to give up on the referendum.

Thus the mayor will have to stage a lonely struggle to stem the tide of welfare populism. If the scheme does not pan out as planned, he may have to give up on his presidential aspirations. But if he manages to win the poll and thereby helps keep welfare in check, he will make huge political gains. Oh has already crossed the Rubicon. He has no other choice but to go all out to get the job done.
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