Why Turkey is trading Covid-19 rules for ‘lifestyle restrictions’

Erdogan is pandering to conservatives with moves like banning music after midnight

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Turkey's vaccination drive has accelerated in recent weeks and the government plans to lift all curfews and restrictions this Thursday, enabling a possible economic revival after almost 2 million people had been driven into poverty by pandemic-related lockdowns, according to a World Bank report.

Turkey has administered 50m doses in an effort to immunise 60 per cent of its 83 million people by the end of summer. Russia, Germany and France have lifted travel restrictions, boosting the crucial tourism industry, and later this week evening curfews will end as all businesses, factories, public transport and services, bars and clubs return to normal. “We are at the brink of getting rid of the pandemic," Health Minister Fahrettin Koca wrote on Twitter.

But even as Turkey opens up, its government is curbing freedom and fun for reasons seemingly unrelated to the pandemic. When the country’s long-time leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced the end of restrictions last week, he also banned music after midnight. Mr Erdogan said he meant “no offence”, but added that “no one has the right to disturb others at night”.

The Turkish Twittersphere responded with outrage, launching broadsides on Mr Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which also banned alcohol sales during its harshest lockdown, in April.

"We apologise to everyone for the disturbance we've caused over the years," singer Cem Adrian tweeted sarcastically. Pop singer Demet Akalın, widely known as an AKP supporter, seemed to share this view, tweeting out, "Sorry?????" in response to the news.

Turkish rapper Agackakan held a midnight concert in Istanbul's progressive, waterfront Kadikoy district in protest of the ban and was briefly detained by police. Academic Ayse Aydogdu referenced Turkey's falling currency and financial troubles and the viral videos of mafioso whistleblower Sedat Peker in denouncing the ban.

"The dollar is worth nine liras, the Central Bank vault is empty, unemployment is at record levels, bribes and mafia are infesting the country. The state's ports are used as drug storages and the ship is sinking – but the captain is worried about the volume of the music on deck," she said on Twitter.

Presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun responded that critics of the ban had fallen prey to manipulation rather than celebrating the new normalisation, adding that the government had supported the arts and artists during the pandemic.

In truth, live music performances have been banned in Turkey since March 2020, and the music industry, along with performing arts more broadly, has suffered the consequences – with countless artists and musicians driven into poverty and even to suicide.

The ban marks an assault on the bands and live musical acts that play around the Izmir waterfront and the back alleys of Istanbul’s main pedestrian drag, Istiklal Street, and on the thousands of folk musicians who serenade diners late into the night at the country’s countless meyhanes, or traditional restaurants. While the rest of the country returns to normality, Turkey’s already troubled musicians will face new curbs and restrictions.

As his poll numbers have dipped to record lows, Mr Erdogan’s favouring of conservatives and “pro-family” voters over liberal-minded urbanites and younger people has endangered lives and livelihoods. The day Covid-19 restrictions end, July 1, is also the day Turkey officially pulls out of the Istanbul Convention, the world’s leading global compact to combat violence against women.

The President announced the move in March in an apparent nod to conservatives and Islamists who portrayed the convention as a threat to the family. Mr Erdogan said the convention “promotes homosexuality”. Critics and women’s advocacy groups counter that pulling out will reduce protections and women’s rights in Turkey, where femicides and domestic abuse have increased sharply in recent years.

To top it off, over the weekend Mr Erdogan attended a ceremony to break ground on what is expected to be the first of six bridges crossing a planned $20 billion Istanbul canal, which will run parallel to the Bosphorus and transform central Istanbul into an island. The government says the new waterway will increase safety, reduce pollution and accident risk and generate billions in annual revenue, while critics argue that the canal will further imperil a Marmara region that is already suffering an unprecedented outbreak of sea slime.

Activists shout slogans and hold signs during a protest against Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, an international accord designed to protect women, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 19, 2021. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

“I can’t sleep at night when I think about this cement project,” Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) told reporters, envisioning the region’s ecological demise. “No amount of money can fix that if it is lost.”

Muharrem Ince, a former presidential candidate for the CHP who recently launched his own party, put all of these moves in one basket, pointing out the government's "mentality that attacks people's lifestyle".

His former colleague CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu again called for early elections, while another opposition politician went a step further, envisioning a lively post-vote celebration. “Don't worry,” tweeted the CHP’s deputy chair. “We're gonna have an after party of 80 million people – with lots of music.”

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National