Sipping an afternoon beer at a table outside a restaurant in the heart of Istanbul, Boran, an advertising executive, reckons he will not be allowed to do the same by next summer.
“We are not talking about sharia [Islamic law] – but Turkey is going to become more and more conservative every year,” he says, poking at his sardines. “The Turkish republic is changing. Maybe in years to come they will make us drink at home.”
Boran’s ruminations are more than academic. New rules on alcohol could have momentous implications for Turkish politics and society – and for investments worth billions of dollars.
At present, drinking is not furtive in Besiktas, the neighbourhood where Boran and his father Baris are having their lunch. The district is packed with fish restaurants, where the drink of choice is raki, Turkey’s equivalent of pastis. It is also home to some of the country’s more anarchic football fans, who congregate in the square next to a 16th-century mosque, swigging beer in the open.
In the next few days, however, President Abdullah Gul is expected to sign into law a bill that will ban alcohol advertising and forbid new alcohol licences for establishments within 100 metres of places of worship or education – commonplace in Istanbul. Bottles will also be banned from shop window displays and images of drinking from television.
The government says it introduced the measures, which were rushed through parliament last week, for public health reasons. Turkey was recently praised by Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organisation, for its leadership in reducing the harmful use of alcohol.
But in a speech this week defending the restrictions, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist-rooted prime minister, referred to the law as “ordered by faith”.
Indeed, it is not immediately apparent that the country has an alcohol problem. Surveys indicate that more than 80 per cent of Turks do not drink alcohol and consumption is the lowest of the 34 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It also declined 17 per cent in the 30 years to 2010.
Denying any interference in people’s lives, Mr Erdogan added: “We haven’t banned anything . . . If you are going to drink, then drink alcohol at home.”
His comments came after other controversies over whether Turkey, a secular republic founded by the raki-drinking Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is becoming more Islamic. These have revolved around restrictions on alcohol available on Turkish Airlines, an abortive move by the carrier to ban air hostesses from wearing red lipstick and an attempt by the Ankara metro to prevent passengers from kissing each other.
The new legislation has angered alcohol companies, notably Diageo, which purchased Mey Icki, Turkey’s leading raki producer, for $2.1bn two years ago. Stressing its role as “significant investors in Turkey”, the group expressed its regret at the passage of the law without consultation, calling instead for a “collaborative approach” to minimise alcohol abuse.
Drinks groups have since shied away from public statements, aware that the legislation’s impact will largely depend on yet-to-be drafted details that may exempt the tourist sector. A test will come between January and March next year, when many shops and restaurants will have to reapply for their alcohol licences.
Some executives argue the Turkish government is secretly betting that alcohol demand remains relatively stable. Alcohol taxes – which amount to more than $4bn a year – are routinely raised towards the end of the year to help bring the budget closer to balance.
And some analysts say the sudden push on alcohol is a classic diversionary tactic by Mr Erdogan – who has previously floated ideas such as legislating against abortion and bringing back the death penalty – to distract attention from unpopular policies on Syria.
Sahin Alpay, at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir university, suggests the prime minister is also trying to consolidate support among pious conservative voters ahead of elections next year – but adds that such moves go beyond the symbolic.
“The reference to the Islamic religion banning alcohol consumption is unacceptable because this country is legally secular; we don’t have any religion-based laws,” Mr Alpay says. “An alcohol ban is not likely but people are entitled to be worried about it.”
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