Debate Roundup: Act II

I realize it’s not always easy to remember the cast of characters involved in Iranian politics, so if you need a quick refresher of the candidates’ names and profiles, please see here.

Before getting into a review of last Friday’s second Iranian presidential debate, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the format of these debates and how they differ from their Western counterparts.

Iranian presidential debates are a strange thing. Anyone tuning in expecting to see a Persian language version of the brutal debates in the American and French presidential elections no doubt came away disappointed. By contrast, the Iranian debates thus far have been very staid affairs. In both the first and second debates, candidates took turns responding to questions drawn at random from a bowl by the moderator. Each answer was timed down to the second, with any time not used returned to the candidate for use in their final statement. There was almost no crosstalk, no yelling, and no dressing down or accosting of the moderator. Compared with the verbal vitriol of Trump-Clinton and Le Pen-Macron, Iran’s debates came off as downright dull. Add in the excessive length — well over three and a half hours — and it’s doubtful that many viewers stuck around to the very end.

Still, there were some fireworks. Conservative candidate Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf went after Rouhani straight out of the gate. Qalibaf was asked about how better to foster science and technological advancement in Iran, but he spent most of his answer time riffing on an alleged “scandal” in the administration involving the Education minister’s family and the illegal import of Italian clothing. If the attack irked Rouhani, it didn’t show in his response. Rouhani quickly dismissed the allegations as baseless. His alleged ally, the reformist Eshaq Jahangiri, backed him up on this point. As was the case in the last debate, the most amusing reaction to Qalibaf’s theatrics came on Twitter, where, as if on cue, pictures of the Tehran mayor sporting a jacket from the Italian manufacturer Lotto began circulating.

Side note: That’s some quality emoji work by the pro-Rouhani reformist @election96 account.

Qalibaf’s attack was indicative of his broader strategy for Friday’s debate, which hinged on trying to portray Rouhani and his government as corrupt elitists who have lost touch with the needs of the people. Taking a page out of the “99%” movement’s playbook, he described the division between the government and the people in slightly altered numerical terms by repeatedly accusing Rouhani of heading an administration of the “four percent” against the 96% of ordinary Iranians. It wasn’t entirely clear where he got those specific numbers.

Qalibaf’s conservative colleague, Ayatollah Ibrahim Raisi, pushed a similar anti-elitist message. He made several promises directed specifically at low-income Iranians, promising if elected to increase government subsidies and cash handouts. Raisi appears to be courting those with Ahmadinejad nostalgia by pushing a lot of the same policies that propelled the controversial former President to office back in 2005.

With Ahmadinejad out of the race and vowing not to publicly back any of the remaining candidates, his voters are presumably up for grabs. It’s a logical strategy, assuming these voters actually exist. It’s hard to imagine there are that many Iranians who long for the runaway inflation, economic isolation, and rampant government corruption that characterized the Ahmadinejad years.

The strongest performance of the day belonged to the incumbent. In the first debate, Rouhani seemed content to sit back and let his ally Jahangiri do most of the heavy lifting. This time, Rouhani was much more vocal in defending his administration’s record. It helped that the debate’s subject matter focused on political affairs and international relations, which included questions about the signature achievement of Rouhani’s first term, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the nuclear accord.

Rouhani hammered his conservative opponents for their opposition to the negotiations over the deal. He drew direct comparisons between their rhetoric and that of the “Wahhabis” and “Zionists,” Iranian code for the Saudis and Israelis, respectively. He even brought up the American president — the only time that Donald Trump has been mentioned during the first two debates — accusing his conservative opponents of being secret Trump supporters. “You were happy when Trump came to power,” Rouhani told the conservative candidates, “because he said he would ‘tear up’ the agreement!”

Qalibaf and Raisi, who, it’s worth noting, are both campaigning on a promise to maintain the nuclear accord if elected, instead attacked Rouhani’s handling of the deal’s implementation. As Raisi put it, “nothing has happened so far” to create “tangible improvements in people’s lives.” He went on to note that despite the promises of an Iranian economy freed from sanctions, many still remain in place, especially in the banking sector.

Rouhani countered by arguing that real change requires time, and asked Iranians to consider whether the country was in a better place economically and politically now than it was four years ago. Jahangiri backed up his boss on this point, saying that thanks to the nuclear accord, “Iranophobia has become Iranophilia.”

Regarding the possible conservative coordination I wrote about before the debate, there wasn’t much said or done in the debate itself that would hint at one of the conservatives dropping out in favor of the other.

If I had to guess at this point, I’d suspect that Qalibaf is more likely to withdraw than Raisi.As I’ve noted in past posts, Raisi, whose candidacy might reflect a desire to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader, has more riding on this election than Qalibaf. Qalibaf has already run and lost in two previous presidential elections. A third would not change much in terms of his political standing. For Raisi, however, a loss in the presidential elections would represent a popular rejection of his leadership, which would all but eliminate him from consideration for the Supreme Leader post.

If a poll out of the University of Tehran from last Saturday is to be believed — and in Iran, not all polls should be — Raisi’s path to victory remains a relatively steep one. Raisi is polling at a lowly 16%, a distant third behind Rouhani (34%) and Qalibaf (28%). Even with a last minute Qalibaf withdrawal, it may be difficult for the relatively unknown Raisi to close such a large gap in the last few weeks of the campaign. Of course, a Qalibaf withdrawal combined with slightly lower enthusiasm for Rouhani may be enough to deny the incumbent the necessary 50% of the vote to win on the first ballot. If Raisi can make the runoff, it could give him the time and the exposure necessary to win over a majority in the second round.

Also of note here: 18% say they’re currently undecided.

Raisi’s best chance to make up ground before the first round of voting comes at the end of this week in the third and final presidential debate on Friday, May 12. This round will [finally] focus on the issue the overwhelming majority of Iranians say is most important to them: the economy.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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