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Erdogan Defends Slim Referendum Win: ‘The Ultimate Goal Is to Win the Game’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his first interview since Sunday’s referendum to implement a presidential system in Turkey, protested those who noted his party won the vote by a slim margin, comparing the vote to a soccer game.

“I come from a football [soccer] background. It doesn’t matter if you win 1-0 or 5-0,” Erdogan told CNN in an exclusive interview Tuesday. “The ultimate goal is to win the game.”

Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which campaigned for the “yes” vote to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential one, won the referendum by a slim 51-to-49-percent margin. Opposition parties have cried fraud, independent election observers protested that “no” campaigners were not allowed to operate in a fair system, and the Turkish electoral oversight board has agreed to address calls for a recount.

Erdogan defended the move to a presidential system while asserting that the sweeping new powers it would grant him would not turn Turkey into a dictatorship. “I am a mortal really, I could die at any time,” he noted. “The system represents a change, a transformation in the democratic history of Turkey.”

“Where dictatorships exist, you don’t have to have a presidential system. Here we have a ballot box. … The democracy gets its power from the people. It’s what we call the national will,” he argued.

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, whose office will no longer exist once the presidential system is implemented, has also defended the vote, condemning opposition groups who have called for Turks to take the streets in protest.

“Objection is a way of law, an instrument to seek justice, just as the elections are the manifestation of democracy. But the ways of seeking justice should be limited to that. To exceed this boundary and call citizens out to the streets is wrong,” Yıldırım said on Wednesday. “It is overstepping the line of legitimacy. We expect the main opposition party leader to act in a more responsible manner.”

“It is unacceptable for the main opposition party not to acknowledge results which the public has already acknowledged,” Yıldırım added.

The prime minister was referring to the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the secular main opposition party, which has formally filed a protest demanding a recount on Sunday’s vote. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called Turks to the streets this week to protest on behalf of the “no” vote and reiterated his support for peaceful protests on Wednesday.

In particular, Kılıçdaroğlu called for protesting a decision by the Supreme Board of Elections (YSK) to validate ballots that had not been officially sealed and stamped by election officials at the polling stations, which occurred midday Sunday.

“This decision taken by the Supreme Board of Elections (YSK) should be protested by all sections,” Kılıçdaroğlu argued. “They [voters] have the right to protest.”

“This referendum will always be remembered as illegitimate,” CHP deputy leader Bülent Tezcan had said on Monday. “The only way to end ongoing discussions over the referendum’s legitimacy is to annul it. What is necessary is the annulment of this referendum.”

The CHP is demanding a recount of up to 60 percent of ballots, citing the irregular voting rule as fraudulent. The YSK is currently deliberating the matter.

In addition to CHP protests, the pro-Kurdish leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is also calling for an annulment of the vote, arguing that its ability to campaign was severely limited by the arrests of dozens of their members of Parliament and party members, including their two leaders. The HDP has also objected to the counting of unsealed ballots.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which sent independent observers to the election Sunday, also issued a statement condemning the election as neither free nor fair. “We observed the misuse of state resources, as well as the obstruction of ‘no’ campaign events. The campaign rhetoric was tarnished by some senior officials equating ‘no’ supporters with terrorist sympathizers,” Tana de Zulueta, who observed the election on the group’s behalf, said.

The Turkish government objected to the OSCE’s declaration, calling it “unacceptable” and publishing a photo of an OSCE observer waving the flag of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist group that the Turkish government has vowed to eradicate.

“We are going to evaluate the objections before noon,” Sadi Guven, a YSK official, said on Wednesday morning.

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