President Donald Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory in a Turkish referendum granting him sweeping new powers, according to multiple local and international outlets.
The constitutional shift proposed by the referendum will essentially knock down the remaining democratic barriers against authoritarianism, leaving Erdogan with enormous power. Independent election monitors have already raised serious concerns about whether the referendum itself met democratic standards.
According to local news site Hurriyet, Turkish presidential sources said that a written statement would be made available on the call. Atlantic reporter Rosie Gray also reported on Twitter that a White House readout of the call would be forthcoming.
The shift has been a goal of Erdogan’s for years, and continues his decade-long pattern consolidating power over the government.
Erdogan was previously the head of Turkey’s parliamentary system as prime minister, before being pushed out by term limits and becoming the president. As president, he transformed what used to be a largely ceremonial position into a more powerful one, and has recently conducted deep purges of non-state media, academia, the military, and the judiciary. Since a failed coup last summer, Turkey has been in a continuous state of emergency, granting the government increased power and leading to the restriction of civil liberties and due process.
Now the referendum, slated to go in effect in 2019, will alter Turkey’s parliamentary system and make it a presidential system, with Erdogan at the head and granted sweeping control over other governmental branches. It will change the rules on term limits, allowing Erdogan more years in power. It will also allow the president to be affiliated with a political party, give the president further control over the judiciary (including the ability to appoint senior judges), and grant him the authority to publish decrees, which previously rested with the cabinet.
Though Erdogan has declared victory, the referendum passed narrowly, and international election monitors have delivered a scathing preliminary assessment of its fairness.
“The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process,” Cezar Florin Preda, head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said.
According to the monitors, the referendum took place on an un-level playing field, biasing the voters to Erdogan’s favored result as a result of Turkey’s ongoing state of emergency. A state-created lack of equal opportunities for other campaigners, state control over the media, and limits on fundamental democratic freedoms denied voters full information, the election monitors ruled.
Opposition parties in Turkey have also raised concerns about the process itself. Part way through the voting, the rules regarding which votes could be counted were changed to allow votes without official stamps to be counted.
While the preliminary reports have been damning, a further international report on the validity of the proceedings will be forthcoming in a little over a week, to give monitors time to conduct investigations.
Earlier on Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump would be waiting for that report on the election’s validity before commenting on the referendum.
Spicer’s comment came mere hours before reports surfaced that Trump had called Erdogan to congratulate him on the controversial election result.
The Trump administration has already been under scrutiny for ties to the Turkish government and business.
Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn registered as having been a lobbyist for the Turkish government while he was also advising the Trump campaign, and was reportedly present at meetings where Turkish officials discussed illegal methods of extricating exiled Turkish cleric Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania and whom Erdogan blames for the coup attempt last summer.
And Trump himself has deep business ties to Turkey, including two Trump Towers in Istanbul, which house a mall in one of the city’s most upscale neighborhoods. Dogan holding, who owns the towers and who is one of Turkey’s largest business organizations, reportedly paid Trump between $1 and $5 million to use the Trump name.