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Seoul Mayor Steps Down After Losing School Lunch Referendum

Oh Se-hoon, mayor of South Korea's capital Seoul, gets into a car to leave the Seoul City Hall in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

A referendum this week on a plan to limit school lunches in schools in South Korea’s capital city has led to the resignation of the city’s mayor and provided a preview for broader political battles in national elections next year. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon had pledged to step down if voters rejected his proposal to provide free meals to only poor school children in the capital, instead of all students.

Mayor Oh Se-hoon addressed the public on Friday and offered his resignation.

Oh says by quitting now he is fulfilling his responsibility and limiting the possibility of creating a political vacuum. He says he believes he is following the will of the people by stepping down.

The people voted with their feet by not turning out. Less than a quarter of voters participated, which nullified Wednesday’s election. Oh’s measure would have provided free meals to schoolchildren whose families’ income fell under the poverty line. He said a competing plan backed by opposition lawmakers in City Council to provide lunches for all students, would be too expensive.

The outgoing mayor’s conservative Grand National Party, which currently holds the presidency and the National Assembly, has been accused of ignoring issues of economic disparity. South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party has called for the creation of a universal welfare state.

Oh spoke out against that plan in his resignation speech. He says that universal welfare is not fair and that the poor should be the preferred recipients of government assistance.

Oh had been considered a strong contender in next year’s presidential election.

Political observers here say the free lunch vote could serve as an indication of how South Koreans will vote the 2012 race.

But for now, a special election to replace mayor Oh will be held in the coming months.