Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch? South Koreans Beg to Differ

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch? South Koreans Beg to Differ

Article excerpt

By refusing to go to the polls Wednesday, voters defeated Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon's referendum to limit free lunches to poor schoolchildren. The result is a blow to South Korea's conservative leadership.

A majority of voters in this capital city of nearly 11 million people have made it absolutely clear: They want free lunches for all students from kindergarten through high school.

It was not, however, by voting against the referendum Wednesday to limit free lunches to poor students or to do away with them altogether, but by persuading people not to vote at all that opposition leaders defeated Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon's pleas against free lunches.

The result is that South Korea's conservative leadership faces its most severe challenge since President Lee Myun-bak's landslide victory in December 1997 after a decade of liberal rule.

The actual results of Wednesday's vote may never be known, but the statistic that counts is that only 25.7 percent of the capital's 8,387,281 voters cast ballots. Election officials refused to open ballot boxes unless the turnout reached a minimum quorum of 33.3 percent.

Mayor Oh now is under pressure to resign as he vowed to do if voters rejected the referendum. His foes disliked both alternatives, insisting the school system should follow through on a plan to feed everyone at midday.

After the low turnout was reported, Oh said he "accepted the results," but found it was "very regrettable to lose the precious sole chance to confirm our future" with a "desirable welfare policy."

A vow to quit

Only three days earlier, in a tearful speech, Oh vowed to quit if voters did not reject free school lunches for everyone. Reelected in May 2010 to a second four-year term by less than 1 percent of the votes, Oh has inveighed for months against free lunches for all secondary and primary school students as "welfare populism" that the city and country cannot afford. …

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