No such thing as a free lunch? South Koreans beg to differ.

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.

Lee Jin-man/AP
Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon greets his supporter during a campaign for free lunches for students Tuesday. Mayor Oh is asking voters to reject a free school lunch program in a referendum Wednesday, in what has become a test of how far a resurgent South Korea should go in developing a welfare state.

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.

So doing, he faced the hostility of the city’s top school official, Kwak No-hyun, as well as a spectrum of liberal and leftist foes.

“The failure of the referendum ends “long conflicts and fights over free lunch,” says Mr. Kwak. “Seoul residents agreed welfare benefits should be given to all students in public schools,” whatever “their parents’ economic status.”

The voting strikes a deep emotional chord among Koreans increasingly concerned about the rising gap between rich and poor among South Korea’s 50 million people.

“It’s a total defeat for the conservatives,” says Hwang In-sun, a woman with two children in school. “The election is a big embarrassment,” says Kim Chang-han, a shop clerk. “This means the conservatives will lose totally.”

Leaders of the opposition Democratic Party, which controlled the central government from 1998 to 2008, decried the referendum as an attempt to deepen class differences and stigmatize the poor. They see the rebuff as a clear mandate for change in pivotal national assembly elections in March and then in the next presidential election in December 2012.

“Free meals and universal welfare concern the people’s livelihood,” says Sohn Hak-kyu, leader of the Democratic Party, seeing the referendum boycott as proof that Korean “society” should “head toward the welfare state.”

Conservatives seem alarmed by what many see as a reaction against President Lee’s rule.

“The communists are coming back,” says an elderly retired official, not wanting to give his name. “The left wing will win many votes. We didn’t expect such a serious and deep outcome.”

The whole issue of feeding lunches to Seoul’s school students “is a very divisive issue,” says Jang Seung-eun, who works in a downtown office. “Mayor Oh was not very smart to stake his whole future on it.”

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