ISTANBUL (AP) — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned as 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 nation and combat terror.
The Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, re-elected Erdogan, its co-founder, at a congress where he was the only candidate for chairman. A narrow victory in a referendum last month to expand the powers of the Turkish presidency allows him to be both the head of state and of a political party.
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 before the vote. "AK Party is not just its voters' party, it's the party for all of our 80 million citizens."
Elected with 1,414 votes, Erdogan set the party's course for what he called a "new era" of reforms.
"The upcoming months will be a period of soaring in all areas, including combatting terror, the economy, expanding rights and freedoms and investments," the president said.
Erdogan was forced to cut his formal ties to the party when he became the country's first directly elected president in 2014. Last month's referendum eliminated a constitutional requirement mandating that presidents be neutral and cut ties with their political parties.
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."
Hours before the congress convened, 2 suspected Islamic State militants were killed in an Ankara police operation. Police said they recovered weapons and explosives. Turkey's state-run news agency said the men were believed to be planning an attack in the capital.
The operation follows a string of attacks blamed on the Islamic State group, which led to Turkey's cross-border operation into northern Syria to combat both IS and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militants.
Erdogan's meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump last week resolved little of the discord over his administration's decision to more heavily arm Syrian Kurdish militants as part of the fight against IS.
Turkey considers the considers the People's Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria a terror organization and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency against the Turkish state and is blamed for multiple deadly bombings since 2015.
Erdogan has said he would retaliate if the YPG posed a security threat, signaling more cross-border operations.
"Those who use terror organizations to keep us in line will soon recognize their mistakes," he said. "We would be glad to solve our problems with our friends and our allies. But if that option is no longer there, we cannot sit with our hands tied."
Erdogan also criticized Turkey's European allies, saying, "We do not have to tolerate the European Union's two-faced attitude."
Erdogan called on the EU to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens, give promised aid for migrants hosted in Turkey 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."