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Seoul court OKs referendum on free school meals

08-16-2011 15:23 BJT

SEOUL, Aug. 16 (Xinhua) -- A Seoul court on Tuesday dismissed a request by South Korean opposition parties and civic groups to suspend a controversial city-wide referendum on free school meals.

The rejection by the Seoul Administrative Court, made on the ground that the vote will be a key gauge of public opinion on the matter, comes as the city government seeks to get Seoul residents to vote on whether the city should provide free lunches at all elementary schools.

The opposition, led by the liberal main opposition Democratic Party that forms a majority in the city council, has claimed the referendum has procedural problems that disqualify the vote itself.

The Democrat-dominated city council decided last year to provide universal free school meals at elementary schools starting later this year and expand the program to include middle school students from 2012.

Conservative Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon downplays the plan as "welfare populism," and has offered an alternative plan aimed at providing free meals to students from families in the lower half of the income distribution starting in 2014.

Critics of the mayor, who was reelected for his second term in office last year, say Oh's plan will stigmatize children who receive free meals.

Oh recently announced he will forgo his presidential bid, a response to the opposition criticism that the mayor is taking advantage of the referendum to raise his national profile for the 2012 presidential election.

With the crucial referendum set for Aug. 24, the opposition camp is now urging Seoul residents to boycott the vote, as Oh's attempt to scrap the city council's plan requires a voter turnout of 33.3 percent or higher and a majority approving the mayor's alternate plan.

"The Democratic Party, along with citizens, will boycott the referendum," a party spokesman said, calling the court decision "very regrettable."

The party will continue challenging the legality of the referendum, the spokesman added.

The conservative ruling Grand National Party, meanwhile, is criticizing the opposition boycott as "anti-democratic."

"The judiciary issued a stern warning against the Democratic Party," a party spokesman said in a briefing, calling the opposition's welfare plan an "excessive welfare" program.

President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who has repeatedly voiced opposition to what he calls "welfare populism" by his liberal opponents, is expected to cast an absentee ballot due to his overseas trip next week. Lee is Oh's mayoral predecessor.

Editor:Wang Xiaomei |Source: Xinhua

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