A backlash brews, as critics fear encroaching Islamism

EUROPE’S AUTOCRATS are divided on the relationship between alcohol and covid-19. Last year, Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, declared that vodka could ward off the virus. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to have come to the opposite conclusion. Shortly after Mr Erdogan ordered Turks to stay at home for 18 days, starting on April 29th, after a record surge in covid cases, his government said it would ban alcohol sales during the entire lockdown. The restrictions overlap with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The reaction was as predictable as it was immediate. Turks partial to alcohol besieged their neighbourhood supermarkets and liquor stores. Beer, wine and raki, a local firewater flavoured with aniseed and defused with water and ice, disappeared from shelves at a record pace. Secular types fumed, accusing Mr Erdogan of using a health crisis to impose part of his Islamist agenda. Similar accusations had surfaced weeks earlier, when the government ordered all eating and drinking establishments to shut down over Ramadan, also as part of the struggle against the virus. “This is a clear attempt to interfere with people’s private lives and their way of life,” said Veli Agbaba, the deputy chairman of Turkey’s main opposition party, referring to the alcohol ban.

The case for the new lockdown is hard to dispute. Covid cases and deaths soared to record levels in April. Over the last two weeks of the month, Turkey had the highest number of active cases per head of any big country. The government’s handling of the pandemic has gone from decent to bad to worse. Cases spiked after the authorities relaxed restrictions in March. Mr Erdogan and his ministers flouted their own rules by attending large funerals and holding party rallies in stadiums packed to the rafters.

They have not bothered to explain exactly how banning booze sales will help. When Turkey imposed similar measures during weekend lockdowns last year, the country’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, claimed that “all Western countries” had limited alcohol sales during the pandemic and that the decision was “consistent with scientific views”. In fact, only three countries, Thailand, India, and South Africa, have imposed such bans. And though the WHO recommends that people avoid alcohol to protect their immune system, it does not recommend that governments decide for them.

Yet a backlash is brewing. Despite occasional visits from police, who have begun checking up on those that continue to sell booze, supermarkets and liquor shops across Turkey are, so far, defying the ban, arguing that it has no basis in law. “There is no such thing in the interior ministry circular,” said the head of Turkey’s association of tradesmen, Bendeki Palandoken. The head of a liquor store association claimed the ban had in fact been lifted. (The government has not yet done so.) It might not be a dry May in Turkey after all.