Erdoğan’s ban on alcohol sales: a new step in the polarization of Turkish society

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Alin Ozinian

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month announced a nationwide lockdown from April 29 to May 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The nation of 84 million had seen the daily COVID-19 death toll rise to around 350 — higher than during two previous spikes last year. “We must quickly reduce the number of cases to fewer than 5,000 a day,” said Erdoğan.

On the same day Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government decided to ban alcohol sales during the 17-day COVID-19 lockdown, angering secular Turks, who see the ban as Erdoğan’s latest imposition of a religious lifestyle on all of society.

The government’s ban on alcohol sales was not officially included in the Interior Ministry decree detailing lockdown restrictions, but Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu himself confirmed it. The AKP’s move has prompted outrage nationwide, and legal experts agree that there is no legal foundation for the ban on alcohol sales and that it’s illegal.

Ümit Kıvanç, a Turkish journalist and writer, thinks the AKP government intends to kill many birds with one stone with the alcohol ban, which can be considered an important turning point in “desired Islamic and conservative lifestyle” conflicts and culture wars between Islamists and secular society in Turkey.

“Undoubtedly, the AKP’s steps – the increased price of alcoholic beverages, the restriction on sales and additional difficulties for bars and restaurants — are being taken for a purpose. On the other hand, they aren’t imposing a complete ban so as to not to give up the high taxes on alcohol and to be able to say that they didn’t prohibit it altogether,” Kıvanç told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.

On April 29 the Ankara Bar Association filed a lawsuit with the Council of State against the ban. Referring to the government’s decision as “arbitrary, without merit and unlawful,” the bar association said, “The ban on alcohol sales during the full lockdown is an abuse of authority that limits basic rights.”

On the same day the president of the Confederation of Turkish Tradesmen and Craftsmen (TESK) said that since the Interior Ministry decree does not include an article on alcohol sales, the police are not authorized to fine liquor stores.

Turkish Minute spoke with Nesrin Nas, an academic in the field of economics, a politician and former leader of the Motherland Party (ANAP), who is convinced that the government, which has been unable to solve the problems of any Turkish citizens, especially those of its own voters, and could not create financial privilege for its supporters as before, is trying to demonstrate its power by relying on prohibitions.

“There are different crises in different spheres including foreign policy and the economy in Turkey right now. In particular, management of the epidemic has revealed the incompetence of the government in health policy as well. The AKP is trying to make the actual crises invisible by creating new crises like the alcohol ban, but there is a major crisis: the AKP’s inability to rule the country,” she said.

According to Nas, the AKP’s “struggle with alcohol” and the unlawful ban aims to show that the government is superior to the law. “AKP wants to say, ‘Look, I still have the power and can do whatever I want.’ On the other hand, they are sending a message to their voters that they are making the lives of people who oppose them difficult as they interfere in private lives,” said Nas.

Members of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) allege that the regulation reflects the desire of Erdoğan and his Islamist-rooted AKP for a more religious way of life in Turkey and will have little practical impact on curbing the spread of COVID-19.

The ban was the top trending item on Twitter in Turkey at the end of April, with thousands of secular Turks tweeting about the restriction under the hashtag #Alkolumedokunma (#Don’tTouchMy Alcohol).

“It is an intrusion into the lives of people who buy alcohol at the store and drink it in their homes and has nothing to do with fighting the pandemic. Our lifestyles and private lives are under attack. It is an attack on justice and freedom, and we secular young Turks don’t know what to do,” said Özgür K., a student at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University.

In November 2019 Erdoğan had declared his political mission to be “raising devout Muslim generations.” However, Turkish pollster Konda found that young people were less likely than the broader population to identify themselves as “religious conservatives” in 2019.

According to Özgür, the AKP openly admits they do not want a modern, secular youth and will do everything to “nurture” the new generation to become religious. “There is an economic crisis in the country, but they frequently raise the price alcohol and do everything to make it impossible to buy it. Since last year we’ve been brewing our own beer with friends in our apartment, but this can’t be a solution,” Özgür told Turkish Minute.

There have been many attempts in recent years by Erdoğan’s government to restrict tobacco and alcohol sales. Smoking was prohibited in closed spaces in 2013, and large segments of society were outraged by the decision the same year to ban kiosks from selling alcohol after 10 p.m. Since then, the tax on alcohol has increased, and it has become increasingly difficult for stores and restaurants to get a liquor license.

Kıvanç argues that it is not possible for the AKP to establish the “desired conservative society” with such steps. According to him Turkish society cannot be put into such a mold, and the majority of society does not want an environment in which drinking is prohibited.

“The conservatism about alcohol and the pressure on users has been going on for a long time in Turkey. Drinking places are driven out of downtown to unfamiliar areas, but alcohol consumption does not decrease in line with this. The problem is alcoholic beverages are too expensive. This point is overlooked. Going to a pub has been a very expensive entertainment for a long time. I mean, even for people in the upper middle class, going to a pub once or twice a week was already over,” said Kıvanç.

The AKP on May 10 proposed legislation that would make selling alcohol more difficult by requiring law enforcement approval for all businesses that purvey spirits. The bill, presented as a modification to the rights of elected neighborhood leaders (mukhtars), mandates that municipalities will need to obtain approval from law enforcement to issue liquor licenses and allows governors and district governors to regulate the hours of operation of all businesses that sell alcohol.

The reasoning for the legislation is that businesses that sell alcohol are “problematic” and that they take up entire neighborhoods and disrupt the public peace.

Nas thinks Erdoğan’s restrictive policies not only directly limit basic rights but will also become a new and effective propaganda tool that will divide society into “those who drink alcohol and those who are against alcohol.”

“This is a new step in the polarization of society. By introducing this ban in Ramadan, Erdoğan is seizing the opportunity to declare as anti-religious anyone who tries to criticize the prohibition and finds it to violate human rights. And by squeezing the opposition into a corner and portraying opposition parties as timid and incompetent in the eyes of their own voters, it reminds the entire society once again who has the power,” said Nas.

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