How Do You Say 'Prohibition' in Turkish?

Critics accuse Turkish PM Erdogan of pushing a religious agenda as he rams through anti-alcohol law. But nobody expects the opposition to stop him.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week rammed through a new law aimed at reducing the harm of alcohol on young people – by restricting its sale to adults as well.

In pushing the law through, Erdogan cited Clause 58 of the Turkish Constitution, which states that "the state will take the steps necessary to protect its youth from addiction to alcohol, drugs, crime and gambling.”

Not only does the new law forbid alcohol to be sold to anyone under 18, it also forbids its sale to adults between 10 P.M. and 6 A.M. The bill would also halt all advertising and promotion of alcohol-related products, and ban anyone under 18 from working in the production or sale of alcohol.

Establishments within 100 meters of a school or university will no longer be able to obtain a permit to sell alcohol. Violators risk fines of between $5,000 and $270,000, and any business owner caught selling alcohol to a minor could face a year in prison.

As expected, the new law has generated a huge dispute between Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party and the parliamentary opposition. This isn't because the opposition opposes restricting alcohol sales – but because the law is perceived as another in a series of steps aimed at promoting Erdogan’s religious agenda.

The opposition has noted that the new law follows a decision by Turkish Airlines to stop selling alcohol on domestic flights and on flights to Muslim countries. Turkish Airlines had also banned flight attendants from wearing red or dark pink lipstick and nail polish, claiming they "impair visual integrity," though the airline later lifted the ban.

Ignoring critics

Erdogan appears unfazed by the criticism. “Our youth must be alert, alive, equipped with knowledge," he said. "That’s the quality of the generation we want, and we are taking steps to realize this ambition.”

Nor did he seem especially worn out by the end of the 17-hour debate in parliament over the law, which passed at 7 A.M. Friday morning with only a few opposition MPs still in the chamber – and after even ruling party members had started off for home.

Erdogan rebuffs arguments against what critics call the promotion of a religious agenda, comparing the law to similar steps taken by Finland and other European countries.

Yet none of these other countries set such high fines, and, moreover, Turkey doesn't have a youth alcohol problem like many Western countries do. According to the Turkish Statistics Authority, only about 5 percent of Turkish families consume alcohol, ranking Turkey last among OECD countries for its alcohol consumption rate. Finland can only look on with envy.

Turkish importers and alcohol producers warn that the restrictions will harm business and tourism. Some 2.4 percent of the country's tax revenues comes from the alcohol industry. The alcohol tax alone provided $2.5 billion to the public coffers.

But these claims have also been ignored by Erdogan, who has refused to meet with representatives of the alcohol industry. Erdogan points out that the new law does not ban the sale of alcohol to tourists. And as far as the economy is concerned, “the good of the youth,” as he put it, appears to be worth more to him than business.

What's more, with Erdogan planning to run for the Turkish presidency next year, and preoccupied with drawing up a new constitution for the country, promoting a religious agenda without undermining the constitution itself is a sophisticated way to win public support.

Ineffective opposition

The chronic weakness of the opposition – led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is of Kurdish origin – plays into Erdogan’s hands. Since being elected head of the Republican Party in 2010, Kilicdaroglu has failed to position the party as a serious alternative that can contend with Justice and Development. His rivals within his party argue that he has never launched a new initiative or proposed a single reform, and that he spends most of his time fighting with Erdogan.

“Rather than propose a new alcohol law, or suggest a worthy plan for reconciling with the Kurds, he makes do with criticizing Erdogan,” a member of the Republican Party told Haaretz. “I wouldn’t be surprised if during the next election we totally disappear from the political map.”

About two weeks ago Kilicdaroglu made a major faux pas when, at a meeting of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the largest bloc in the European Parliament, he compared Erdogan to Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying both were responsible for killing their own people and that there were only "shades of difference" between them.

Hannes Swoboda, a member of the European Parliament representing Austria and head of the alliance, demanded an apology from Kilicdaroglu. But Kilicdaroglu refused, and a scheduled meeting between the two was canceled.

Erdogan has filed a libel suit against Kilicdaroglu for 1 million Turkish lira.

Meanwhile, Erdogan's rivals say, the prime minister is leading Turkey toward a dictatorship disguised as a democracy.

“The alcohol law is just another example of a ruler who thinks he knows not only what’s best for his subjects, but how they are meant to behave,” charged a member of the opposition.

“But why shouldn’t he continue this way, when we can’t seem to unite our ranks, recruit supporters and foil the Justice and Development party? If I were Erdogan, I would even raise a glass of whiskey in a toast to the continued ‘success’ of this opposition.”

People toasting with beer and raki, a traditional Turkish aniseed-based alcoholic drink, at an Istanbul restaurant in March.Credit: AP

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