Debate Roundup: Act III [UPDATED]

 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 the details of the last debate, I want to take another moment to survey the wacky media environment in which the Iranian election is being covered. For some reason, every major Western media outlet is pushing the same narrative about an increasingly desperate Rouhani struggling to hold on in the final days of the campaign. Take a look at this article in the Economist. Or this tweet from the Washington Post:

The Economist article starts off with a pretty snide remark about how Iran “plays at electing a president” every four years before delving into all the ways in which Rouhani has failed both as a president and as a candidate for reelection. Later, it posits that Rouhani may have to face a “humiliating” second round run-off against one of his conservative opponents, in which, according to an unnamed “seasoned foreign observer,” Rouhani will lose. Left unmentioned is the poll embedded in the middle of the article, which still shows Rouhani at over 50% against the field. The WaPo story, to be fair, plays down the “front-runner” aspect of the two conservative candidates referenced in the tweet, substituting the word “contenders” in the actual article headline. The overall sentiment, however, remains the same.

Perhaps this sensationalism is a deliberate effort to garner interest in the internal politics of a country that most people outside the Middle East don’t think about all that often. In my experience, a disturbing percentage of people blindly assume that Iran is a country of ideologues, brutally ruled by a cohort of bearded Mullahs and turbaned Ayatollahs. Elections are dismissed as disingenuous attempts at political theater, the results all prearranged.

To be sure, Iran is far from a democracy, and the elections are neither free nor fair, but these oversimplifications conceal the multifaceted surface of Iran’s political landscape. I suppose anything mainstream outlets can do to get people to actually read an article about Iranian politics is worthwhile. If that means drumming up a political horse-race in the style of Western democracies, then so be it.

The truth is, I’m still having a hard time spotting the dark clouds allegedly lurking on Rouhani’s horizon. The incumbent turned in another fine performance this past Friday in the third and final presidential debate. This round held special significance for all candidates since it focused on the issue the vast majority of Iranians say is most important to them in the upcoming election, the economy. Theoretically, it should have been Rouhani’s weakest performance. He’s had real successes in his first term in both social reform and international diplomacy, most notably with the nuclear deal, but these achievements have not yet translated into the tangible economic benefits he’s been promising to ordinary Iranians.

Yet despite possessing significant ammunition with which to attack Rouhani, the best the conservatives could do was to redeploy the same lines they’ve used in the previous two outings. Qalibaf, taking a page from presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s book, sounded like a robot on stage, constantly repeating the same talking point about the Rouhani administration’s elitism ad nauseam. He began literally every single answer, regardless of the question, with some reference to Rouhani’s government of “the four percenters.” Raisi also stayed on message, almost to a fault. He continued his calls for massive increases in cash handouts to the poor as a panacea for Iran’s economic woes but provided few details. He certainly didn’t explain either how or why this method of economic stimulus would prove more successful than when the Ahmadinejad government tried the same strategy to disastrous effect.

Rouhani pressed Raisi on this point when he took the podium for the third question of the afternoon. From the start of the debate, Rouhani repeatedly invoked the mistakes and mismanagement of the “previous administration,” i.e. Ahmadinejad’s, as the primary source of the economy’s problems as well as the reason for its slow recovery. He did so again in his answer to a question about the country’s banking system. When Raisi was given his two minutes to respond, he went on the attack. Sarcastically, he said that he’d like to arrange a debate between Rouhani and the previous administration since that’s who the incumbent seems to be campaigning against. Shortly after Raisi finished speaking, the camera cut to Rouhani at the podium, who had what could only be described as a “Chesire cat-like” grin on his face. When it came time for Rouhani’s final rebuttal, he dropped the hammer on Raisi, saying that he has no choice but to keep talking about the past administration. After all, so many of its officials are currently working for Raisi’s campaign.

With the final debate now in the books and just a few days left in the campaign, it’s reasonable to say all major indicators appear to be pointing in Rouhani’s direction heading into Friday’s first round. He leads in every poll, running close to or above the 50% necessary to win on the first ballot; his debate performances have all been solid; and he has drawn huge crowds at his public rallies, despite what some hardliner newspapers would have you believe:

Of course, there is always space for an upset. If the results of the Brexit and U.S. presidential elections have taught us anything, it’s that it is best not to be too certain about the outcome of any vote before it happens. Iran is no exception. As nearly all Iran observers remind us, surprises are not uncommon in Iran’s electoral history. But looking at the results of Iran’s presidential elections over the last three decades, there’s a pretty clear record of reformist and moderate success at the ballot box. Since 1989, only Ahmadinejad’s two victories — and it’s unlikely that you can call his 2009 reelection an honest “victory” — defied this trend. Barring any last minute surprises this week, I expect it will continue.

UPDATE (5/15/17): Qalibaf has withdrawn from the race. It seems that the conservatives have finally picked their horse and are going to throw all their weight behind Raisi. While not quite a “surprise,” the removal of a major conservative contender clearly alters the electoral landscape in the final few days of the campaign. It’s impossible to know what this means in terms of potential outcomes until new poll numbers come out, but for all intents and purposes, this is now a two-man race between Rouhani and Raisi. The key question for the remainder of the campaign is how successful will Raisi be in winning over Qalibaf’s supporters to his cause. The conservatives are less cohesive as a group than the moderate-reformist alliance, which could make it difficult to transfer all those voters without suffering any spillage. A last minute marriage of forces is a risky maneuver, but it’s likely the only chance the conservatives have at unseating Rouhani in the first round.

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