Voters in Seoul rejected attempts by the city's mayor, Oh Se-Hoon, to take away free meals from half of schoolchildren. - AFP (File Photo)

SEOUL: Seoul mayor Oh Se-Hoon said Friday he would resign immediately, after a failed referendum on free school meals dealt a blow to South Korea's ruling party ahead of national elections next year.

The seemingly parochial issue turned into a closely-watched battle after the mayor, seen as a potential presidential candidate for the ruling Grand National Party (GNP), pledged to stand down if voters rejected his attempt to take free meals away from half of schoolchildren.

The referendum was also seen as a test of voter sentiment ahead of parliamentary elections next April and a presidential vote in December 2012.

“I'll resign immediately in order to minimise political controversy and administrative vacuum,” Oh said at a press conference broadcast live across the country, bowing deeply before the cameras.

“Over the past year, I've been in a lone, painful fight against excessive welfare... I feel sorry for failing to complete my official term even after voters honored me with re-election.”

Oh's resignation, in effect as of midnight Friday, came after the poll was declared invalid with less than a minimum required third of voters turning out.

This was despite an emotional televised appeal by the mayor in which he knelt down before the cameras and began crying, appealing to people to come out and deliver a judgment against what he branded “welfare populism”.

Oh has served 14 months of four-year term after being re-elected last year.

A by-election to vote for his successor will take place on October 26, with the winner serving the remainder of the term.

The support base of President Lee Myung-Bak and the GNP has been eroded by economic woes, the perceived widening gap between rich and poor, and between large companies and smaller enterprises.

The liberal opposition Democratic Party (DP) argues that, despite the country's wealth gap growing, the ruling party has failed to prioritise social welfare.

“The DP will take the lead in setting up new national strategies in order to realise the spirit of the times - universal welfare and economic democracy,” DP President Sohn Hak-Kyu said at a meeting of party leaders.

The GNP suffered demoralising defeats in local elections in June last year and by-elections in April. Lee's five-year term ends in early 2013 and the constitution limits presidents to one term only.

In Seoul, the DP had campaigned for a boycott of the free meals referendum, accusing the mayor of squandering taxpayers' money on beautification projects while penny-pinching on lunch for children.

Oh's departure threatens to leave massive engineering and redevelopment projects unfinished.

His city government has been hamstrung by the opposition-controlled city council which refused to approve a dollar 69 million budgets needed to build an ecologically controversial waterway linking Seoul to the Yellow Sea.

It has also come under mounting criticism for costly projects, including a dollar 620 million scheme to build an opera house on an artificial island and a dollar 387 million programme to build a plaza and a park.

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