[Viewepoint] Pitfalls of CEO politics

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[Viewepoint] Pitfalls of CEO politics

The sort of leadership we see today cannot help this country out of one of its darkest hours. President Lee Myung-bak’s leadership style has been in question for a long time. His appointments in his inner circle have been controversial. But that seems to be least of his problems. His competency in managing our security crisis has been alarming, and on top of that he displayed ignorance in politicking skills by supporting the ruling party’s railroading of next year’s budget bill.

On the controversial appointments of senior military personnel, he described them as “most fair.” He noted that “there was no problem” in the bloody clash at the National Assembly as the ruling party unilaterally approved next year’s budget plan. It is disheartening to have to come to grips with a leader lacking common sense and judgment on top of an incurably unidirectional approach to governance.

I received a call from a foreign journalist asking for insight into the cocktail of political contradictions in Korea. He was baffled by the host of paradoxes in our society, such as the banner cry of a fair society while appointments are still done through the “good old boy” network; the demand for security alertness and unity when we have a security team made up of people with no military service experience; calls for more modern, sophisticated politics while everyone ignores collaboration, compromise and statesmanship; and a rise in the approval ratings of the president despite escalating complaints about his leadership style.

The key to the paradox might be found in the president. President Lee’s governance philosophy can be defined with the aphorism “the end justifies the means.” What matters to him is a higher popularity rating, not the process of policy-making.

A hard-working and no-nonsense president has made a deep impression on the people, but without any exchange of empathy.

Of course, the president’s cool facade may be masking deep anxiety inside. Even the Grand National Party is worried that the railroading of the budget bill could backfire and produce a domino-style collapse of the Lee Myung-bak administration. They are aware that one-way politicking with disregard to the public’s voice can be catastrophic. But the leadership is vain and more blind than we thought as it continues forward knowing its path to be wrong.

I remember one speech by Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2007 in which he warned that regardless of the good in a campaign promise, it could be killed by Washington politics. The politics here are no different, as we sacrifice child care support to increase the budget for the constituencies of heavyweight ruling party politicians.

The president, who should have reined in such misdeeds, instead is reported to have given rounds of calls to congratulate party members who were at the frontline in the brawl with opposition members. It is no wonder many doubt if there is an inch of sincerity in the president’s cries for a fair society and an advanced democratic state.

There are three things you need in war, an Austrian general said in the 17th century, and they are money, money and money. In state governance, money is equally important. The president cannot be successful in his ambitious projects like the four-rivers restoration project if he does not secure money. A true businessman at heart, the president may have endorsed the railroading of the budget in order to have the money ready for his plans.

But what makes state governance successful is not how much money is secured and spent. It depends on how well money and politics are mixed. The chemistry takes place in the budgetary review and debate process at the National Assembly.

The word “parliament” derives from the French parler, or to speak. A parliamentary government should be rooted in communication and discussion. But the government and ruling party have sabotaged the National Assembly’s primary function.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said: “The British think they are free. But they are free only during the election of members of parliament.” His quote applies to us as well, and we are discouraged to discover the members we helped put in the assembly turn out to be no more than pawns.

It is not the future of the Lee Myung-bak government or the Grand National Party we are worried about. We fear that narrow-minded and self-serving governance could cost public trust. The people should be alert so that we, too, do not find ourselves as pawns on a chessboard.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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