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(News Focus) Political turmoil in the offing after Seoul mayor's failed vote
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Aug. 24 (Yonhap) -- The nation's political community is headed toward unpredictable political turmoil, as Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon is set to resign following his failure to block the provision of universal free lunch to all elementary and middle school students in the capital, political watchers said Wednesday.

   In a rare test of public sentiment on welfare spending, Seoul residents were asked whether they endorse an opposition-led free lunch program for all students or the conservative mayor's proposal for free lunch only for students from poor families.

   As the vote was nullified due to low turnout, Oh has no choice but to fulfill his earlier pledge to quit ahead of next year's general and presidential elections.

   Oh earlier this week offered to step down if he fails to stop what he calls a "welfare populist" policy that could weigh on the state budget in the long term, effectively turning the unprecedented ballot into a vote of confidence on the conservative mayor.


Now, all eyes are on Oh as political watchers wait to see when he will leave office and how his decision would affect the political landscape ahead of parliamentary elections next April and a presidential vote in December 2012.

   If Oh resigns within the next month, by-elections will be held in October to pick a new mayor, which would become a prelude to the 2012 elections.

   "It is the beginning of political upheaval," political analyst Yoo Chang-sun said. "If Mayor Oh steps down, taking responsibility for the referendum defeat, the ruling party will bear the burden in the October by-election. If the opposition party takes the seat, the ruling camp will struggle in the general elections and that could have a negative impact on the presidential race as well."

   Some critics say the referendum will add fuel to competition for "pork barrel" politics ahead of next year's elections.

   "The poll results show that the majority of people actually support social welfare programs at such a level," said Shin Yul, politics professor at Seoul's Myongji University. "In light of this referendum, politicians will pledge to enact more welfare policies, including half-priced university tuition, free child care and senior welfare benefits."


You Jong-il, economics professor at the Korea Development Institute (KDI), said the government could reconsider its business-friendly economic policies to expand benefits to the middle class in the right direction in light of the referendum.

   "I think the vote echoes people's demands for more welfare benefits," You said. "Despite the relatively good macroeconomic indicators, many Koreans are not satisfied with their living standards. That's because they have not enjoyed sufficient benefits from economic development."

   According to the KDI report, South Korea in 2008 placed 27th on a quality-of-life index among 30 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

   Backing Oh's position, President Lee Myung-bak has repeatedly voiced concern about politicians seeking populist proposals ahead of elections, saying providing financial aid to those who are well off would dry up the budget for those in desperate need.

   Now that the vote has ended in failure, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education will continue to provide free meals to first through fourth graders. It plans to expand the program for all elementary school students next year and then to middle school students in 2012, regardless of their families' income levels.

   One year of providing free lunch to students costs an estimated 34 billion won (US$31 million).