WASHINGTON — The White House said President Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to congratulate him on Sunday’s referendum that ballooned the Islamist ruler’s presidential powers, though the State Department earlier in the day noted “irregularities on voting day and an uneven playing field during the difficult campaign period.”
With 51.4 percent of the vote, Erdoğan claimed victory as Turkey’s largest cities — Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir — shot down his plans. The referendum gives Erdoğan more power by eliminating the prime minister’s post and replacing the country’s current parliamentary system.
It comes as Erdoğan, a founder of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been purging perceived enemies of his rule by accusing them of being complicit in last summer’s coup attempt. As of April 10, the regime had detained 97,845 Turks, arrested 48,542, fired 134,194, shut down 2,099 schools and fired 7,317 academics, liquidated 4,317 judges and prosecutors, closed 149 media outlets and arrested 231 journalists.
The detained include Rev. Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina pastor who has called Turkey home for more than two decades and has been sitting behind bars since last year.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner wrote that the United States was looking to Turkey “to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens.”
The initial report from the joint election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe found an “unlevel playing field” after “fundamental freedoms” had been gutted by the regime. “Voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform, and civil society organizations were not able to participate,” the report said.
Comprehensive reports from the monitors are expected by the end of May.
Asked if Trump was concerned about the referendum, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at the daily briefing Monday that “we’d rather not get ahead of that report and start to make decisions without knowing — there were observers there, as there routinely are, and I’d rather wait and see.”
“They have a right to have elections and their people participated in that,” Spicer added. “Before we start getting into their government system, let this commission get through its work.”
On Monday night, the White House released a statement indicating Trump spoke with Erdoğan on Monday “to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory and to discuss the United States’ action in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on April 4th.”
“President Trump thanked President Erdogan for supporting this action by the United States, and the leaders agreed on the importance of holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable,” the readout of the call continued. “President Trump and President Erdogan also discussed the counter-ISIS campaign and the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends.”
Last month, Erdoğan suggested abandoning Turkey’s bid to join the European Union after warning that Europeans would not be safe anywhere around the world.
“Turkey is not a country you can pull and push around, not a country whose citizens you can drag on the ground,” Erdoğan said after the Netherlands and Germany clamped down on his regime’s efforts to rally expat voter support in those countries. “If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets. Europe will be damaged by this.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned Erdoğan in a joint statement that the “tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdoğan personally.”
In Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said the regime’s oppressive measures surrounding the vote meant their battle had just begun.
“We will pursue a legal battle,” said CHP deputy leader Bulent Tezcan. “If the irregularities are not fixed, there will be a serious legitimacy discussion.”