ISTANBUL, TURKEY - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was returning as the leader of Turkey's ruling party Sunday, pushing back criticism that his tenure has curtailed freedoms and polarized the country as he vowed to serve the country and combat terror.
The Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, convened to re-elect Erdogan, its co-founder, at a congress where he was the only candidate for chairman. A referendum last month eliminated a constitutional requirement mandating that presidents be neutral and cut ties with their political parties.
Speaking to tens of thousands of people in Ankara, Erdogan said he was back after "998 days of separation" from the party and outlined a vision for its immediate future and elections scheduled for November 2019 with new executive and grassroots teams.
"This congress is the AK Party's rebirth," he said. "AK Party is not just its voters' party, it's the party for all of our 80 million citizens."
Erdogan was forced to cut his formal ties to the party when he became the country's first directly elected president in 2014. A narrow victory in the referendum on expanding the powers of the Turkish presidency allows him to be both the head of state and of a political party.
Critics say the referendum transforming Turkey's parliamentary governing system to an executive presidency was marred by allegations of election fraud. The vote took place under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of last year's failed coup.
Erdogan defended the state of emergency and said it would remain in place "until the situation reaches peace and welfare." He said it had not affected civil rights.
Turkey blames the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen for the July 15 coup attempt that left nearly 270 dead — a charge Gulen has denied.
Under the state of emergency, more than 47,000 people have been arrested and 100,000 dismissed from public service for alleged connections to the cleric and groups Turkey deems terror organizations. A dozen lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish opposition party, including its co-presidents, are behind bars along with some 160 journalists.
Calling the purge necessary for the country's survival, Erdogan said, "Nothing in Turkey will be like what it was before July 15. A new era has begun in combatting terror organizations inside and outside our country's borders."
Erdogan snapped at Turkey's Western allies, saying they wish to hold Turkey back by criticizing the country's democracy, while backing terror groups.
"We do not have to tolerate the European Union's two-faced attitude," he said.
Erdogan called on the EU to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens and to speed up Turkey's accession bid in return for the country's work in curtailing the flood of migrants to Europe.
"Despite everything, our choice is still to continue with the EU," he said. "The decision here belongs to the EU."