Trump Congratulates Erdogan on Referendum Win Despite Concerns Over Fairness

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks by phone with the Saudi Arabia's King Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 29, 2017. Trump congratulated Turkey's President Erdogan over his victory in a controversial referendum on Monday Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Donald Trump congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday for winning a referendum that grants him vast new powers as international observers raise concerns about voting irregularities and electoral fraud.

A readout of the phone call released by the White House revealed that after the U.S. president congratulated Erdogan on the victory the pair discussed the Syria crisis and the recent U.S missile strike on a Syrian military airbase.

It does not mention whether Trump raised concerns over alleged voting irregularities during the referendum or of government measures restricting equal campaigning opportunities in the weeks leading up to it, both of which were highlighted in an earlier statement by the State Department, reported by the the The New York Times .

Erdogan's narrow 51.4 percent victory in Sunday's referendum greatly enhances his power. It allows the winner of the 2019 presidential election to take full control of government, ending the current parliamentary system and abolishing the role of prime minister. The president will be able to appoint government ministers, declare a state of emergency and interfere in judicial processes after the change.

Critics accuse the Turkish president of seeking to undermine Turkish democracy and expand his increasingly authoritarian grip on power.

Monitoring group the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe questioned the fairness of the referendum in a preliminary report released on Monday, concluding the vote "took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities."

In its statement, the State Department echoed the concerns: "We look to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens—regardless of their vote on April 16—as guaranteed by the Turkish Constitution and in accordance with Turkey's international commitments, such as under the Helsinki Charter." The 1975 charter compels signatories to uphold human rights.

European leaders also issued more cautious statements after the referendum, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying the "tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is. [It] means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdogan personally".

The office of French President Francois Hollande warned that a potential referendum on reviving the death penalty would "obviously be a break with values and engagements" Turkey had vowed to uphold as a Council of Europe member. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said the referendum result was a "clear signal against the European Union", and ended Turkey's decade-old bid to join the bloc.

Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, had clashed with Erdogan over the Turkish government's crackdown after a failed military coup in Júne 2016 that led to the arrests of thousands of people and restrictions imposed on independent media.

Washington and Ankara have also disagreed over the U.S arming Kurdish militants in Syria, whom Turkey accuses of being "terrorists." The issue was discussed by U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish officials at recent meetings in Ankara.

The White House's statement said that Trump had thanked Erdogan for supporting the April 6 missile strike, which was launched in response to an alleged chemical attack on the Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun. Both men agreed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be punished for the attack, according to the statement.

Both men also agreed to increase cooperation to fight extremist groups including the Islamic State militant group.