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Turkey's president campaigns for referendum at war memorial

Last Updated Mar 18, 2017 at 11:00 am PST

ISTANBUL – Cheered by flag-waving supporters, Turkey’s president turned a commemoration of a World War I campaign into a political rally on Saturday, slamming Europe and declaring that a constitutional referendum next month on whether to expand his powers will enhance Turkey’s place in the world.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan outlined his vision at a stadium ceremony in the Aegean port of Canakkale, near where Ottoman armies held off an Allied expeditionary force in 1915-1916, a bloody event that helps to underpin staunch nationalism in Turkey today.

While Turkey calls it the Canakkale battle, its former Allied adversaries, including Australia and New Zealand, refer to it as the Gallipoli campaign.

While military units marched and performers in Ottoman-style robes banged drums and cymbals, Erdogan was less focused on past feats than on his current political battle, whose outcome could secure his status as one of the most powerful figures in Turkey since the country’s 1923 founding after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Opponents of the democratically elected president view the April 16 referendum as part of a dangerous drift toward authoritarian rule, though supporters see him as a pillar of stability, Muslim piety and nationalist pride in a turbulent region that includes neighbouring Syria.

“We are offering historic reform,” said Erdogan, who maintains that an executive presidency and the abolition of the prime minister’s post will help Turkey develop economically and deal with security challenges, which included a botched coup attempt last year.

Speaking in Ankara, Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, urged Turks to vote no in the referendum, saying approval would undermine democracy. Also in the Turkish capital, police detained 11 members of a small leftist group who were demonstrating against the referendum, the Dogan news agency reported.

Erdogan had harsh words for Europe, where some countries, citing security concerns, have prevented Turkish Cabinet ministers from campaigning for referendum votes in the Turkish diaspora.

“We have around 3 million voters living abroad,” Erdogan said. European governments “hindered them,” he said. “Let them try and hinder them. Whether Germans, Dutch, Austrians, Swiss, Belgians, Danes or whoever it is, know that your president has stood firm and will keep on standing firm.”

Dutch authorities had refused to let Turkish ministers address Turkish citizens in rallies, prompting Erdogan to refer to “Nazi remnants” in the Netherlands. European Union leaders called the remark unacceptable.

Turkey has suggested that it might retaliate against Europe by pulling out of a 2016 deal to stem the flow of refugees to the continent, in which Turkey takes back people who are detected crossing the Aegean Sea by Greek, EU and NATO ships. Turkey gets European funding under the deal, which also was supposed to allow visa-free travel to Europe for Turks.

“Unfortunately, we are experiencing a problematic process” in visa-waiver talks, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday. Anadolu, Turkey’s state-run news agency, reported his comments.

As part of the spat over political campaigning in Europe, Turkey has criticized Germany, whose officers provided key guidance to Ottoman troops during the slaughter on the Aegean coast more than a century ago.

The March 18 anniversary marks the beginning of an Allied naval bombardment near Canakkale, at the Dardanelles strait. Former Allied nations hold their own commemoration on April 25, the day in 1915 when troops under British command landed after the bombardment. The Allied force failed to advance and withdrew in early 1916.

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Associated Press reporter Cinar Kiper in Istanbul contributed to this report.