Analysis: Erdogan sees himself as a global Islamic leader with local elections to win

 Mr Erdogan sees himself as a global champion for Muslims everywhere.   - REUTERS

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, has a pre-election ritual that he sticks to: picking a fight with foreign governments. 

Ahead of a referendum to change Turkey’s constitution in 2017, Mr Erdogan accused Dutch and German ministers of being Nazis. He expelled Israel’s ambassador from Ankara a month before the 2018 presidential elections. 

And now, 11 days ahead of local elections in Turkey, he is feuding with Australia and New Zealand over the Christchurch massacre

Mr Erdogan has been playing footage of the killings at his election rallies and invoked the First World War battle of Gallipoli, where thousands of Australian and Kiwi troops were killed by Turkish forces. 

He warned anti-Muslim Australians that their grandfathers were “sent back in coffins” and they would share the same fate if they came to Turkey. 

Critics often dismiss Mr Erdogan’s belligerence as cheap electioneering, a way up to whip up his base of conservative voters. They note that for all his angry words he maintains diplomatic and economic ties with Israel and the EU.    

But his rhetoric reflects something deeper about Mr Erdogan: his ambition to be seen as a global champion for Muslims everywhere.  

The 65-year-old thinks of himself not just as the national leader of Turkey but as a spokesman for Muslims facing repression across the world from Palestine to China. 

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, centre, flanked by Jordan's King Abdullah II, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right Credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

The worldwide mandate he has assigned himself, with no regard to national borders, deeply frustrates foreign leaders, who often see Mr Erdogan as meddling in their internal affairs for his own political gains.   

At public rallies, the Turkish president makes a distinct hand gesture, with four fingers held high and his thumb tucked into his palm. It is known as “the Rabia salute” and it commemorates the killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters by Egyptian military forces in 2013. 

Mr Erdogan’s vocal support for the Brotherhood has enraged Egypt’s authoritarian government, which considers the organisation a terrorist group. The two powerful Middle Eastern states expelled each other’s ambassadors in 2013 and regularly antagonise each other. 

Mr Erdogan also uses the plight of the Palestinians, for whom many Turks have deep sympathy, as a way to embarrass regional rivals and whip up support at home.     

After the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem and Israeli forces killed 50 protesters at Gaza border in 2018, Mr Erdogan called an emergency summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.  

Turkish President Erdogan attends a ceremony marking the 104th anniversary of Battle of Canakkale, also known as the Gallipoli Campaign, in Canakkale Credit: Cem Oksuz/Presidential Press Office

The conference was awkward for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both close US allies who have warming ties with Israel, who were not eager to dwell on the embassy issue. Both states sent ministers instead of national leaders, prompting Turkey to scold them for being “very timid”. 

He also regularly inflames tensions with the EU by trying to hold political rallies with Turkish communities in Europe. He once called on Turks in Europe to have five children each as a rebuke to the “vulgarism, antagonism, and injustice” of the EU. 

Mr Erdogan has been a relentless election winner since 2003, although the democratic playing field in Turkey has become less and less level as he consolidates power. 

His decision to present himself as a global Islamic leader has led to domestic political success and fulfilled his own instinct to project himself in the world. No one should expect him to stop it anytime soon.