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[Editorial] Vote on welfare populism

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Published : Aug. 23, 2011 - 19:08

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Today, Seoul citizens express their views on the controversy over school lunches in a referendum. They are asked to choose between two opposing schemes ― a free-lunch-for-all-students plan supported by the main opposition Democratic Party versus an alternative program from Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon that limits coverage to students from families in the lowest half in terms of income.

On the surface, the issue appears neither complicated nor of much political significance. But at stake is much more than school meals. The poll outcome will determine, among other things, the mayor’s political fate. On Sunday, Oh declared that he would step down as mayor if Seoul citizens reject his proposal.

On Aug. 12, Oh also pledged not to run for president in 2012 in his bid to quench suspicion that his crusade against the DP’s lunch scheme was related with his presidential ambition.

Thus, if Oh loses the plebiscite, a by-election will be held in October to choose a new Seoul mayor who will serve his remaining four-year term. Oh was reelected to office in June last year. The by-election result is bound to influence the parliamentary and presidential elections next year, given the capital city’s overwhelming importance in Korea’s political landscape.

In this context, the ruling GNP wanted Oh to stay regardless of the outcome. The party’s lawmakers advised Oh not to put his head on the chopping block, saying it would be foolish of him to tie his mayoral office to a vote on one single policy.

But Oh refused to follow the party’s advice because he could not accept the lawmakers’ narrow view of the referendum. During his tearful news conference on Sunday, Oh said that the poll was not about a policy but more about the fundamental values and principles that he has cherished as a politician.

Oh basically frames the vote as a choice between “populist welfare” and “sustainable welfare.” He has consistently denounced the DP’s lunch program as an example of welfare populism that would ruin the economy if left unchecked. The DP’s scheme calls for offering free meals to all elementary and junior high students by 2012 regardless of their parents’ income.

Against this “universalist” program, Oh has proposed to phase in a “selective” lunch plan by 2014 that would limit coverage to students from the poorest 50 percent of households. Oh justified his scheme, saying that subsidizing students from affluent families would make the meal program unsustainable.

What prompted Oh to put the lunch issue to a vote was the DP’s growing welfare offensive aimed at capturing votes. The opposition party scored handsome electoral gains with its free school lunch plan in the 2010 local elections. This encouraged it to make bolder election pledges, such as free health care, free child care and half-price college tuition.

The ruling GNP, for its part, amplified worries about welfare populism by beginning to emulate the DP’s proposals after losing a couple of parliamentary and local by-elections. Oh rightly felt ― as any sensible politician ought to have ― the need to put the brakes on the rising tide of welfare populism in Korea.

But the odds are stacked heavily against the well-intended mayor. To win the referendum, Oh must meet two conditions. First, voter turnout should exceed 33.3 percent. Otherwise, the poll will be declared invalid. Second, more than half of the votes cast should endorse his proposal.

For the mayor, the first condition is much more difficult to satisfy. In the mayoral election in 2010, Oh won about 2.1 million votes. But the minimum voter turnout required for a valid referendum is about 2.8 million.

The gap is not easy to narrow, especially in the face of the DP’s active “Don’t Vote” campaign. Boycotting a vote is never a commendable strategy in a democracy, but in this referendum it is a safer way to win.

Oh’s decision to stake his mayorship on the referendum outcome was not a desirable move either. But for him, it was one of the few options he could employ to boost voter turnout. The mayor has done his best to stem welfare populism from spreading. Now the final judgment is left to Seoul citizens. We hope they make a wise decision.