The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“Democracy Stops at Corporate Doorstep” is the title of a book by economist Woo Seok-hoon who argues that workplace should not be an exception to the principles of democracy. The National Pension Service (NPS) has set the guideline to exercise proactive shareholder rights despite concerns of “pension fund socialism,” claiming it has the duty to demand the “minimum” practice of democracy in companies where public funds are invested. The new mandate allows the NPS to campaign to remove board members accused of wrongdoings before criminality is confirmed at the court.
Democracy and profit-seeking corporations may not mix, but corporate management also selects top power through vote. As a single vote is bestowed in political elections, one share ensures a voting right for each shareholder. Owners in family-run chaebol enterprises also depend on voting rights. The family feud at Hanjin Group and Korean Air also came about over voting rights. The demand for transparency in corporate governance is aimed at checking the power of owners or management.
How about Korean politics? Is the government in the position to demand transparency in corporate management? Voters cannot understand what their vote means in the upcoming election in April. Only a computer can figure out the results from a proportional representative (PR) seat connected to support from parties and allowing candidates losing the constituency vote by a small margin getting a second chance through PR seats under the new election law. The bizarre hybrid was born through a coalition of the ruling party and four minority parties leaving out the main opposition. Nobody asked the voters’ opinions in designing the new election framework.
No one in the ruling party was free to oppose to the bill institutionalizing a new authority with the power to investigate and indict public employees on charges of corruption. One lawmaker who abstained from voting received a bombardment of disapproving text messages. Another regretted after being forced to vote in favor. The ruling party rejected the call to vote by secret ballot. In principle, lawmakers must vote in their name. But is it fair and transparent for lawmakers to bend their principle under party mandate?
Whether it be politics or companies, no one will take responsibility if governance is not transparent. Accountability checks the practice of power. Under the current presidential system, the chief executive is exempted from accountability. Follies can be pardoned if the ruling force has sufficient support and champions the cause for reform to win another term. Dissidents are entirely ignored as they as regarded as the force behind division.
There is no responsibility to the people under the current framework where anyone opposed to the president’s platform is regarded hostile. President Moon Jae-in in his inauguration speech pledged to serve every one of the people. He was much expected to break out of the political fandom to reach out to more people. But he ended up giving in to the temptation of the mighty presidential power. There is no more talk about constitutional reform to correct overbearing presidential powers.
The system is to be blamed. The genteel personality of the president would not matter. Political scientist Park Sang-hoon in his book said under the current power structure, the personal appeal of the president could pose more danger to a democracy.
A popular president could seek to directly forge alliances with the supporting base to bypass the legitimate democratic process through the legislative. Popularity breeds stubbornness and narrow-mindedness, leading to the doom of the president.
Politics remain even behind business in Korea. Korea Inc. at least has managed to improve. But politics has gone nowhere since constitutional reform 30 years ago. How can the constitution be of any help to the country when there had not been a single successful president since direct vote? Democracy has stopped at the doorstep of the Blue House.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 3, Page 30