The mayor of Seoul quit yesterday after losing a vote on who should be entitled to a free school lunch, becoming the biggest name from the ruling conservatives to fall as the opposition gears up for next year’s elections.
Welfare, job creation and the growing wealth divide are shaping up as the key issues ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary votes, putting the liberal opposition in a strong position against the pro-big business conservatives.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, the ambitious mayor of the megacity which is home to 10.6 million, had put his job on the line in a bid to stop what he called excessive and destructive welfare. Oh was also considered a possible candidate to run for the presidency.
“Excessive welfare will be certain to bring tax increases or put a heavy burden on future generations,” the telegenic Oh said at a news conference announcing his resignation. “Or it will do both.”
Residents of Seoul voted on Wednesday in support of free lunches for all schoolchildren, rejecting Oh’s argument that only the children of less wealthy parents should receive a state-provided meal.
The opposition Democratic party, which favors greater welfare spending, says such a system highlights the divide between the haves and have-nots, and stigmatizes the poor.
Welfare has become a big issue in Asia’s fourth largest economy, where the government is being pressed to pay for more of the cost of raising children in a country with a dwindling birth rate.
Along with the debate over free school lunches, there have been calls for college tuition subsidies, childcare support and jobs for the half a million college graduates every year.
Next year’s elections will be the first time in 20 years that presidential and legislative polls have been conducted in the same year.
A by-election to fill Oh’s position will be held October, providing a final readout on how both parties are doing ahead of the parliamentary vote in April next year.
Opinion polls show support for the conservatives has fallen sharply this year amid criticism of the government’s policy which favors the conglomerates, also known as chaebol, over smaller firms.
The bigger businesses generate most of the country’s exports, but small and medium firms employ most of the workforce.
While the two main parties are running neck and neck for the parliamentary ballot, the ruling Grand National Party’s Park Guen-hye is the runaway leader for the presidential vote at the end of next year.