The poll has in effect turned into a vote of confidence on Mayor Oh Se-Hoon, a presidential hopeful from the ruling conservative Grand National Party who vowed to step down if free lunches for for all goes ahead.
The vote is being closely watched ahead of parliamentary elections next April and a presidential vote in December 2012 as a litmus test for voter sentiment.
The Grand National Party and President Lee Myung-Bak’s support base has been eroded greatly due to economic woes and a perceived widening gap between the rich and the poor, large companies and small and middle sized enterprises.
Oh, who has Lee’s backing, called the referendum after the opposition-controlled city council gave all grade one to six pupils free meals, instead of limiting them to those from below the poverty line.
The mayor has promised to step down if the turnout fails to reach a quorum of one-third of the city’s 8.4 million eligible voters, or if the result backs free lunches for all children regardless of income.
Expectations are that the turnout might be below the quorum in light of the mayor’s low popularity and voter apathy.
Oh favours free lunch for students whose family income falls into the bottom 50 percent by the year 2014.
Oh’s proposal to limit the offer to the poorest 50 percent of families would cost 304 billion won ($283 million) a year, compared with the opposition’s 409 billion won, according to Dong-A Ilbo daily.
At a televised media conference on Sunday, Oh knelt down before the cameras and began crying, appealing to voters to come out and deliver their judgment against what he branded “welfare populism”.
The liberal opposition Democratic Party (DP) has campaigned for a referendum boycott, accusing the mayor of squandering taxpayers’ money on the city’s beautification projects while penny-pinching on lunch for children.