Unlike Park, Erdogan fails leadership test

The contrast between how two leaders handled tragedies is instructive.

In a democracy, who bears responsibility for failures and mistakes further down the political chain? These are not idle questions, because, as two recent events in South Korea and Turkey show, elected representatives judge their responsibilities differently.

Start in South Korea where, following the tragic ferry disaster last month in which hundreds of schoolchildren died, first the country’s prime minister resigned and then, on Monday, the president appeared on television to deliver an extended apology. Park Geun-hye wept as she accepted responsibility and pledged to dismantle the much-criticised national coastguard.

Contrast that with Turkey, where the country is still reeling from last week’s mine disaster that claimed the lives of 301 people. In that case, there are likely to be legal ramifications, with 18 people, including executives from the company that owns the mine, under arrest.

It is instructive to see how Turkey’s prime minister has handled the real public anger that followed the disaster. Protests have taken place, not only in Soma, the eastern town where the disaster occurred, but in the country’s largest cities. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown little leadership. On the contrary, in touring the town and being confronted by a booing crowd he – allegedly, since the video footage is unclear – slapped a protester. “If you boo this country’s prime minister, you get slapped,” he seems to tell the man.

Is this how the leader of a democracy acts? Arguably South Korea’s prime minister, Chung Hong-won, need not have resigned – although it is admirable that he did – over a disaster that was at several levels removed from his responsibility. But at least the president Ms Park showed the required contrition: often what the public wants is not a resignation but recognition from their leaders that they understand the burden of political office. Just showing that they recognise mistakes were made and their responsibility in those errors, can be enough.

Mr Erdogan failed that test. He could have shown contrition and understanding. He could have promised swift and transparent investigations. He could, at least, have demonstrated that he understood the anger of people who lost relatives. Instead, he lashed out, physically.

Ms Park is at the beginning of her presidency, in power just over a year, whereas Mr Erdogan is in his 11th year as prime minister. But it is clear who acts more like a states(wo)man.

Published: May 20, 2014 04:00 AM

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