Failure in free-lunch referendum [The Korea Times] 09-19-2011

By Jay Kim

Watching the referendum on the free lunch program held in Seoul last month was like watching an episode of a detective program. In the United States a referendum is usually initiated by citizens reacting against incapable politicians, and almost never by the mayor, the head of a city government.

A referendum, which relies on the opinions of the people, is always a politician’s last resort, since it is regarded as a sign of weakness in his leadership. That means that a referendum is hardly ever put into motion, unless a politician is certain that it will pass overwhelmingly after conducting several polls, public hearings, and solicitations of opinions of civic organizations and experts.

I heard that Mayor Oh Se-hoon is very popular among housewives in Gangnam, southern Seoul, for his young age and good looks. This may have made him arrogant, or maybe the attacks of the majority Democratic Party members of the city council and the superintendent of education made him lose patience; however, his referendum was too rash and handled too hastily. Oh was nominated by the ruling Grand National Party and elected as mayor with its help.

Instead of making a decision on his own, it would’ve been wiser if he had discussed the idea with the GNP and let the party lead the referendum effort. By the time he reached out to the party for help, it was already too late. He announced that he would not enter the next presidential race to change the mind of Park Geun-hye, a member of the GNP and the party’s most prominent presidential hopeful, but this was also in vain.

Finally, in desperation, he announced that he would resign if the referendum failed with tears in his eyes, but even this was unsuccessful in the end. The free-lunch referendum actually became a vote of confidence in Oh.

I find this to be strange. Also strange is the law that referendum votes are not even counted unless at least one third of those eligible cast votes. I believe that these votes, which cost 31 billion won in taxpayers’ money, should be counted so that the result may be known to the citizens.

Only then would people know whether Oh actually won in terms of the votes counted. It is a real pity to throw away these votes after spending such a huge sum. In the U.S., ballot boxes must be opened regardless of the voter turnout.

The opposition’s slogan, urging people not to participate in the referendum, is something I have never heard in the United States. In America, we spend millions of dollars to raise voter turnout and teach from elementary school onward that voting is both the right and duty of citizenship.

Telling people not to vote would cause a big stir in the United States. Not casting a vote is giving up the right to vote, and it’s an expression of the individual to follow the result unconditionally, no matter what the result may be. Regardless of the voter turnout, a voting result is legal in the United States.

Abstaining from voting is regarded as irrelevant. It is not right to nullify the referendum by counting those that do not show up. The condition of a required quorum is perhaps applicable to a board meeting, but not to a citizen referendum. Whether the turnout was one-third or one-fourth of the population, the ballot boxes should have been opened and counted.

I also wonder why Oh’s camp did not change the content of the referendum to make nonvoting a victory for him, since they would have been well aware of the required quorum. If they changed the wording and told people not to show up to vote if they oppose the full-scale free lunch program, then Oh might have won.

At any rate, watching this unfold was as exciting as an episode of “I Am a Singer,” the most popular TV program in Korea these days. I was reminded of a referendum initiated by the people of California in 1978, the famous “Proposition 13.” This bill proposed to roll property taxes back to 1975 levels and limit their annual increase to no more than 2 percent.

The result of this referendum, which was a reaction against the incompetent state assembly and governor, was overwhelming support for the bill (64.8 percent of the vote). There was no condition that a voting rate below one-third of the eligible voters nullified the referendum. What was important was how many people voted for it, rather than how many people did not.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (