Two major surprises emerged from the long-winded, three-hour-long first televised debate for Iran’s presidential election contenders, which took place today. The debates were supposed to focus on “social” issues.
First, the anticipated clash between President Hassan Rouhani and his influential hardliner rival, Ebrahim Raeesi, didn’t happen. Raeesi, who is seen as the candidate closest to the centers of power around the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, has spent much of his life in the country’s judiciary, where he was one of the main masterminds of the brutal massacre of political prisoners in 1988. However, he doesn’t seem to have what it takes to perform well in the Islamic Republic’s tricky political arena.
During the debates, Raeesi was clearly trying to emulate the populist rhetoric of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who registered to run again but was barred from doing so by the vetting body, the Guardian Council. Raeesi started out by promising to triple the subsidies for the poorest sections of the population and decried the country’s rising Gini coefficient. This could have been a smart move, since he used a “social justice” language to attract millions of working-class Iranians, while also citing an international measure to show his technocratic sensibilities. But Raeesi had no mojo, nothing that would make him stand out. When he was told that his policies will lead to big government, he said that he’d make sure that didn’t happen, as he agreed with the free market orientation of the Rouhani administration. He made not a single attack on any of the other candidates. He didn’t offer a compelling or coherent alternative to Rouhani. Too careful to antagonize Rouhani’s constituency, he also didn’t offer anything to the more Islamist voters. Raeesi was the evening’s main loser and this left open the question of who will now be the main challenger to Rouhani’s candidacy.
Jahangiri: An Unlikely Social Media Darling
But if Raeesi was a total flop, the star of the debate wasn’t President Rouhani either. And with this, we have the second surprise. The true winner of the debate was Rouhani’s faithful vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri from the reformist Executives of Construction Party, who is widely thought to drop out in favor of Rouhani at a later stage. When other candidates were babbling on in generalities (“unemployment is bad”, “the environment has problems”), Jahangiri suddenly changed the tone by repeated and frontal attacks on hardliner Tehran mayor and repeat presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.
Ghalibaf, who has been the mayor of Iran’s capital since 2005, is an ambitious man, and this is his third time running for president. He was the second-runner to Rouhani four years ago. Ghalibaf used to head the police forces and belongs to Iranian politics’ conservative faction. His initially competent management of Tehran municipality was part of an attempt to recast himself as a technocrat, as he tried to appeal to the youth of the country. Having failed in that attempt, Ghalibaf now largely tries to capture Ahmadinejad’s constituency. He has claimed to be the candidate of the “96 percent” against the “4 percent” — i.e. the privileged establishment.
But such claims seem to be a hard sell to the electorate. Not only has Ghalibaf been criticized for his inept response to a major fire incident in Tehran in January that led to dozens of casualties, he is also known for belonging to networks of nepotism and corruption. The mayor did much to block the parliamentary inquiry into Tehran administration’s corrupt practices. Tehran’s booming construction and the damage it has done to the city and its environment was noted by his opponents.
Knowing all this, Jahangiri repeatedly hit Ghalibaf where it hurts. Using a well-known theme from the 2012 elections, he reminded the people of Ghalibaf’s oppressive past. When Ghalibaf accused him of being a cover for Rouhani, Jahangiri thundered that he was the only reformist in the debates and he was there “to represent a political current that has been unjustly excluded”. This might win the support of some hardcore reformists who are not excited about Rouhani and don’t see enough progress for civil rights. Jahangiri’s bold attacks have already made him into an unlikely social media darling.
President Rouhani seemed to have taken a back seat during the early part of the debate, but he came into his element in the second half, attacking Ghalibaf as a “liar” who peddles fake news. This was a reference to the claim from the Tehran mayor that Rouhani had promised to make four million jobs and had clearly failed to do so. As IranWire pointed during our live tweeting of the debate in Persian, Ghalibaf was indeed lying. Rouhani had only said that if Iran could attract 10 million tourists, four million jobs could be created. But Ghalibaf’s next comment caused even more anger. After a short break in the debate, he held up an unclear piece of paper, supposedly a print-out from Rouhani’s website, and said: “They look into your eyes and they lie.” This was the exact action and words of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the prominent presidential candidate during the contested 2009 election who remains under house arrest due to his role in leading mass protests. Ghalibaf’s attempt to use Mousavi’s name to his benefit will surely anger and disgust many and might send them to the polls, even if they previously hadn’t planned to vote.
Rouhani also used his usual humor while defending his government’s achievements. Reminding debate-watchers of increased internet freedoms during his administration, the president said: “If it wasn’t for this government, even our friends here today couldn’t have campaigned on the internet.” Using Jahangiri as an attack dog, while sporting a more calm and presidential look for himself seemed to have been the chosen strategy of President Rouhani for his first debate.
Leaving aside the two also-ran candidates (who weren’t even especially amusing, unlike some in previous years), the main question is now the future of Raeesi’s candidacy. He had been billed as the conservative’s main candidate but even his firmest supporters might now doubt his performance. A top hardliner operative who spoke to IranWire on the condition of anonymity said there has been serious disappointment in conservative circles. Will the scandal-prone but more politically astute Ghalibaf become the main conservative candidate?
As for Jahangiri, there is little doubt that he’ll drop out in favor of President Rouhani at some stage. But will the tag game played by Rouhani and his deputy work, or will voters want to see a firmer performance from Rouhani himself?
Lastly, it is not a surprise that both conservative candidates tried to play the “social justice” and anti-establishment card. While Rouhani is more committed to civil rights compared to his rivals and has run a vastly more competent administration compared to his predecessor, his free-market economic policies mean there is discontent among Iran’s working classes, who haven’t seen any improvement in their lot. Will Rouhani try to broaden his base by appealing to these classes?
Many questions remain — and we might be in for even more surprises.