Turkeys Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has promised to get tough on alcohol - will he deliver?

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has promised to get tough on alcohol - will he deliver?

Having won a third term with an increased majority, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in a position to implement the tighter controls on alcohol that he has publicly advocated. However, Ben Cooper writes, concerns about Turkey’s tourism industry may moderate his reforming zeal.

The news last month that Anheuser-Busch InBev is to launch its Leffe and Hoegaarden brands in Turkey suggests that the brewer believes there is growth potential in the Turkish beer market.

On the face of it, it is not hard to see why. The country’s economy has been growing fast and, with a large population and now stable political environment, it has significant scope to develop further as an economic power. Currently the world’s 17th largest economy, Turkey has a young population, with an average age of 28, and a vibrant and growing tourism industry.

However, for alcohol companies the economic potential is tempered by the very real prospect of tighter alcohol regulation.

Having already toughened controls on alcohol sponsorship earlier this year, and proposed raising the legal drinking age to 24, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured a third successive term in last month’s General Election with around 50% of the vote. He has spoken publicly about tightening controls on alcohol and his election win appears to give him a mandate to do so.

Fadi Hakura of the Chatham House think-tank believes the threat of greater control on alcohol is very real.

“The current government in Turkey is an Islamic-rooted, socially conservative government which is implementing a socially conservative agenda, and part of that agenda is increasing restrictions on alcohol,” Hakura tells just-drinks.

The recent changes in sponsorship rules meant that the Efes Pilsen basketball team had to change its name to Anadolu Efes Sports Club. The Government also introduced a measure whereby everyone consuming alcohol at a public event sponsored by an alcohol brand had to be over 24.

Alcohol companies in the country appear reluctant to comment on the issue of alcohol policy. Anadolu Efes said: “We cannot make statements about this subject. It is company policy.”

In addition to the more recent controls on sponsorship, alcohol taxes have gone up by between 800% and 1,000% over the past eight years, increasing the cost of the Turkish national drink, raki, from about TRY9 (US$5.41) per bottle to between TRY35 and TRY40 today.

Hakura believes “there is a real possibility” that Erdogan will take these reforms further. “I think it is likely that this government will further pursue a socially conservative agenda and one of the litmus tests of that agenda is alcohol. I anticipate further restrictions on the sale, consumption and distribution of alcohol in this country. That is likely, that is foreseeable, that is a real possibility.”

The control of alcohol is not only emblematic of Erdogan’s Islamist credentials; it also speaks to the broader transformation that Turkey has undergone since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

While he has presided over economic growth and, crucially, managed to tame the military, Erdogan is moving the country away from the western-facing secularism which has defined modern Turkey since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk revolutionised the country in the first half of the last century. A permissive view towards alcohol was integral to that culture and, by the same token, a less tolerant approach is a feature of where Erdogan is taking the country.

However, in spite of his popularity, the degree to which his views represent how Turks generally feel about alcohol is questionable.

Turkey’s 74m population is almost entirely Muslim, but many Turks drink. However, gaining an accurate picture of how many people drink is problematic. As in other Muslim countries, many of those who consume alcohol in Turkey prefer to be discreet about it, even more so since the AKP came to power.

Not surprisingly, Erdogan himself is a self-declared teetotaller, while Ataturk, by contrast, was a known heavy drinker who died of cirrhosis of the liver.

According to WHO data, per capita alcohol consumption in Turkey is around 3.4 litres of pure alcohol (LPA), compared with 12.2 LPA in the European region as a whole.

A lifestyles survey conducted by the KONDA market research company found that 9.7% of Turks consider themselves to be ‘fully devout’, while 52.8% would describe themselves as a ‘religious person who strives to fulfil religious obligations’. On the other hand, 34.3% are ‘believers who do not fulfil religious obligations’, while 2.3% say they do not believe in religious obligations and 0.9% of the population are atheist.

One drinks industry source estimated that around 40% of Turks drink alcohol, and this seems to be a common ball-park estimate.

Marjana Martinic of the International Center for Alcohol Policies points out that “drinking in Turkey, unlike in some other Islamic countries, has always been part of the culture and the local brandies, the rakis, are very much associated with tradition and culture”. Martinic likens the approach to alcohol at least among a proportion of the Turkish population to that taken by Muslims in former Yugoslavia.

The divergence in attitudes on alcohol is also geographic. Those living in the big cities and tourist resorts have always taken a more liberal, westernised view, while the rural population has been more traditionalist and observant. Erdogan’s brand of nationalist, conservative populism has appealed broadly but has played particularly well with the latter.

The Government is therefore unlikely to experience significant popular resistance to greater controls.

The major opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), the party of Ataturk himself that has traditionally represented the liberal middle-class elite, does take a more relaxed view towards alcohol, but while it has shown signs of emerging from its electoral doldrums, it still only garnered around 26% of the vote last month. Meanwhile, there is support for tighter alcohol control both from the other major right-wing party, the Nationalist Action Party, and among the Kurds.

A far more likely restraining influence on Erdogan’s desire to restrict alcohol consumption will be the possible damage tighter controls might do to Turkey’s US$25bn tourism industry.

Hakura and others believe this could lead to a variable application of current or tightened alcohol regulations as seen in other Muslim countries. To a degree, it is already the case that municipalities in tourist regions and big cities exhibit a lighter regulatory touch towards alcohol than those in the rural heartlands.

Erdogan’s views on alcohol and gender politics give credence to fears that his aim is to transform Turkey into a fully-fledged Islamic state. However, while there have been concerns that he has become increasingly autocratic and intolerant of dissent, he is also considered to be a pragmatist. The degree to which he tightens alcohol regulation may therefore be determined more by a tactical judgment on his part.

Instituting a higher legal drinking age or tightening other alcohol regulations would advance his morally conservative agenda and go down well with a significant proportion of his voters and his Middle Eastern allies. On the other hand, it could harm the economy, and it is economic prosperity that has underpinned his success.