CNN's Becky Anderson interviews Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.
Erdogan denies dictator charges
01:42 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Erdogan granted sweeping new powers by referendum

President tells CNN new system is for Turkey, not himself

Ankara CNN  — 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that his plans to assume sweeping new powers do not make him a dictator.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Erdogan said that a constitutional reform package – backed by a narrow majority of Turkey’s voters in a referendum on Sunday – was not about him.

“I am a mortal really, I could die at any time,” he told Becky Anderson inside Ankara’s presidential palace Tuesday, in his first interview since the vote.

Turkish voters on Sunday passed an 18-article constitutional reform package that will transform the country’s parliamentary system into a powerful executive presidency. The plan, put forward by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), gives Erdogan sweeping and largely unchecked powers.

Erdogan rejected accusations that he supported the new powers out of a desire to empower himself rather than improve Turkey’s political system. “The system represents a change, a transformation in the democratic history of Turkey,” he said.

Under the revised constitution, Erdogan will be able to abolish the post of Prime Minister and assume broad new powers to rule by decree. The new arrangements give him the power to appoint a cabinet and some senior judges. The power of Parliament to scrutinize legislation is curbed.

Erdogan has already transformed a largely ceremonial office into a strong powerbase, instituting a widespread crackdown on dissent that intensified after a failed coup last year. More than 47,000 people have been arrested since the foiled coup, and nearly 200 journalists are behind bars.

CNN's Becky Anderson interviewed Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday.

Reforms ‘not a step towards dictatorship’

Erdogan denied claims that the new reforms were a step towards dictatorship. “Where dictatorships exist, you don’t have to have a presidential system,” he said.

“Here we have a ballot box… the democracy gets its power from the people. It’s what we call national will.”

The margin of victory for the “Yes” vote was razor-thin. Despite a state of emergency and a widespread crackdown on dissent, Erdogan succeeded in persuading only 51.4% of voters to back the constitutional reforms.

Erdogan showed no sign of conciliation, despite of the narrowness of his victory. Invoking a sporting analogy, Erdogan said a win was a win. “I come from a football background,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you win 1-0 or 5-0. The ultimate goal is to win the game.”

That is unlikely to wash with opposition parties, which have promised to challenge the outcome.

The referendum was widely seen as a plebiscite on Erdogan, who has led his country through more than a decade of economic growth and development, first as prime minister and then as president.

“Yes” voters believe Turkey’s future will be safer and more prosperous with a strong leader at the helm. But many “No” voters saw the referendum as a power-hungry leader’s attempt to cement his position.

On Monday, international election monitors delivered a scathing verdict on the conduct of the referendum. Representatives from a coalition of international bodies said the vote took place on an “unlevel playing field,” with the “yes” campaign dominating media coverage.

Erdogan lashed back at the international monitors’ initial findings, telling them to “know their place,” Reuters reported.

He also hit out at the European Union, which has bristled at his restated support for the death penalty and raised concerns about how the referendum was conducted.

Erdogan's supporters celebrate the referendum win in Ankara.

Europe ‘must keep its promises’

Addressing Turkey’s long-stalled bid to join the EU, Erdogan accused its member states of failing to keep their side of the bargain. The EU had “made us wait at its door for 54 years,” Erdogan told CNN.

“This from a political relationship point of view, is not tolerable. We have tried hard to accept all the requirements of the EU… the EU has not kept its promises… the European Union must keep its promises.”

Read: Turkey referendum: What happened and what comes next

“If they do keep their promises we can sit down. We can see which steps are to be taken.”

Turkey has repeatedly clashed with EU leaders over a migrant deal to stem the flow of refugees leaving its shores for EU nations, complaining that Turkey is doing more than its part for refugees but getting nothing in return. It has been lobbying for years to obtain visa-free travel for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe.

erdogan trump sot anderson intv_00022012.jpg
Turkey's president speaks about Trump
02:27 - Source: CNN

Erdogan suggests Trump meeting

Unlike European leaders who expressed reservations about the referendum, US President Donald Trump telephoned Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory. The call was well received by Erdogan, who suggested taking things further.

“It would be better to have (a) face-to-face meeting and take our relationship forward,” he said.

As a member of NATO and a key bridge between the Middle East and Europe, Turkey is an important but difficult ally in the efforts to combat ISIS, and to stem the migrant flow from Syria. Turkey is sheltering around 3 million refugees from Syria, and is keen to see a resolution to the conflict on its doorstep.

Asked if he felt US and Turkey could work together, Erdogan said: “The way President Trump is approaching these matters makes us happy. US and Turkey as allies… we can resolve significant problems. We do not have any difficulties on that front.”

Becky Anderson reported from Ankara. James Masters wrote from London. CNN’s Kara Fox, Carol Jordan and Angela Dewan also contributed to this report.