US president spoke with the Turkish leader Monday following a referendum that has escalated concern over Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian grip
Lauren Gambino in Washington
Trump’s call came as the Turkish government announced late on Monday night that it would be extending the state of emergency in the country by three more months.
International observers monitoring the Turkish referendum concluded in a preliminary report on Monday that the campaign and vote took place in a political environment where the “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed”.
The US president spoke on Monday with Erdoğan, whose triumph in the constitutional referendum escalated concern over his increasingly authoritarian grip on power.
Trump’s congratulatory message strikes a starkly different tone from the statement issued by the US state department on Monday, which urged Erdoğan to respect his citizens’ fundamental rights and noted the report’s findings of “irregularities on voting day and an uneven playing field during the difficult campaign period”.
According to a readout of the call provided by the White House, the two leaders discussed the recent developments in Syria and the US response to the chemical attack in Syria and “agreed on the importance of holding Syrian president Bashar al-Assad accountable”. The readout matches a statement from Erdoğan’s office, which was reported by the state-run Anadolu Agency.
On Sunday, Turkey narrowly approved a package of constitutional amendments that will dramatically reshape the country’s system of government. The proposal replaces the country’s parliamentary system with a presidential one and abolishes the role of the prime minister.
The “yes” camp prevailed with a slim majority, just 51.4% compared with the opposition’s 48.6%, according to Turkey’s electoral commission. The main opposition party immediately contested the result, citing a series of irregularities, and critics raised concerns about the fairness of the vote in the fraught political environment. The vote will take days to confirm.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party, which opposed the constitutional amendments, joined calls by other opposition figures to annul the vote, citing the controversial decision by the electoral board to accept some 1.5m unstamped ballots they say could have altered the outcome of the referendum.
The prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said during a parliamentary meeting that the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party would invite Erdoğan to rejoin next week once the final results were announced, setting the stage for the latter’s return to the party he founded and led to successive electoral victories.
Turkish presidents are expected to retain their neutrality, but under the new constitutional reforms they will be allowed to maintain their party affiliation. The move will allow Erdoğan to have final say over nominees for parliament, solidifying his control over the legislature.
Yildirim sought a more conciliatory message in his speech, saying there were no losers in the referendum campaign and urging unity in the referendum’s aftermath.
Asked during the White House daily briefing to respond to the result and Erdoğan’s accumulation of power, press secretary Sean Spicer echoed the state department statement and said he would withhold reaction until a final report is published.
“Before we start getting into their governing system, let this commission get through its work,” Spicer said.
Erdoğan’s move to consolidate power, which could potentially keep him in office until 2029, comes just eight months after he survived a failed coup attempt last summer. Erdoğan responded by declaring a state of emergency and cracking down. With the aim to “cleanse all state institutions”, the president suspended or dismissed roughly 120,000 people, including state officials, teachers, bureaucrats, and detained another 47,000 on coup-related charges.
Trump’s congratulatory call stands in contrast to the cautious response from several European leaders. Some officials appeared wary of further antagonizing Turkey, urging restraint and a commitment to Democratic values. Others were more forthright and declared Sunday’s vote the end to Turkey’s decade-long attempt to join Europe’s 28-member bloc.
“With what happened yesterday, (Turkey’s) membership prospects are buried, in practical terms” the Austrian chancellor, Christian Kern, said in a statement. “We are entering a new era”.
Trump also spoke to Erdoğan in early February. On the call, Trump reaffirmed Turkey as a strong Nato ally and a partner in the fight against the Islamic State.
The leaders again discussed the campaign against the the terrorists group on the call on Monday and agreed on “the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends”, the White House said.
The two nations disagree on the American plan to fight Isis in Syria. Erdoğan has deep reservations about the American plan to arm Kurdish forces, which Turkey considers terrorists. The issue has been a sticking point in US-Turkey relations, and was front and center during a visit to Ankara last month by the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson.