Iran’s President Rouhani gave his best performance yet in the third and final televised debate between the six candidates for the presidential election, which takes place on May 19. He defended the achievements of his government, promised to stay on course for four more years to keep inflation down, continue economic growth and uphold citizenship rights, while focusing his attack on his two major hardline rivals, Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and establishment cleric Ebrahim Raeesi. On social media, Rouhani supporters regarded him as the winner of the last three-hour-long debate. But has he done enough to knock out Ghalibaf and Raeesi and secure his re-election?
Crucially for Rouhani, he benefited from the stellar performance of Eshagh Jahangiri, his vice president, who, unlike the president himself, officially belongs to a reformist party. Jahangiri gained respect from the first debate due to his bold attacks on the hardliners. He is now expected to drop out in the next few days in favor of the president. Jahangiri launched a co-ordinated tag team tactic with Rouhani in the third debate, while the other managerial reformist, the also-ran candidate Hashemi-Taba, who has promised not to withdraw before May 19, also gave a better performance, defending the government’s economic achievements (in a less direct fashion) and poking holes in the promises of the two hardline candidates.
Two weeks ago, after the first debate, I wrote that Raeesi clearly lacked charisma and political acumen and didn’t have what it takes to operate in the tricky environment of Iranian politics. Two weeks and two debates later, this seems to be confirmed. Raeesi entered the race with much fanfare as a candidate clearly favored by the military and clerical establishment of the Islamic Republic, but he seems to have embarrassed them by a lackluster performance. He gave populist promises — such as increasing cash subsidies, which are associated with the despised Ahmadinejad administration — without having the populist credentials of the former president. The long-time judge seems to have the worst of both worlds: He is neither a convincing populist nor an awe-inspiring presidential figure. It is hard to imagine him making it to the second round (the election will go to the second round only if no candidate secures a majority on May 19).
Ghalibaf has been far more effective, appealing to some of the estimated 20 to 30 percent of swing voters who make their pick based on personalities and economic promises. The former police chief stayed on message in the third debate, promising to represent the “96 percent” against the favored “4 percent” and by constantly beating on the drum of unemployment, which has long been a major concern for millions of Iranians. He, along with Raeesi, also attacked the corruption in circles close to the president and his cabinet, indirectly implicating Rouhani’s shadowy brother, Hossein Fereydoon, who faces numerous allegations in the pipeline of rumors. Rouhani smartly countered that he has no “brotherhood pact” with anyone and will fight corruption anywhere he finds it. But has he convinced the voters of this?
The president also did more to highlight some of his achievements that have done much to help the poor, including the national health program he initiated, known as Tarhe Salamat, while also warning the voters about failed policies like cash subsidies. Rouhani and Jahangiri both promised that the economic benefits of the Iran [nuclear] Deal will continue to materialize, with the former even pledging that his government will work to annul all remaining non-nuclear sanctions. Rouhani also reminded the voters that his “oil diplomacy” in Opec had doubled Iran’s oil production and regained its market share from Saudi Arabia.
Rouhani’s best performance, however, came in his closing statement when, in the course of four minutes, he did all he could to destroy Ghabliaf and Raeesi, at the same time pledging to people to stay on course during the next four years. He revealed that it was he who had saved Ghalibaf’s career four years ago by preventing the publication of investigations into his activities, and went on to accuse him of always having a militarized approach to youth and students. He then took on Raeesi and reminded the voters of the high posts he has held as a judge before confronting him with a plea: “Please don’t make Imam Reza a subject of factional politics!” Raeesi is the custodian of the tomb of Imam Reza, the revered eighth Imam of Shias, and the only Imam buried in Iran. This means that he oversees one of the largest financial conglomerates in the country. Rouhani, in effect, accused Raeesi of distastefully using the resources of this holy institution for factional purposes. It was a stinging, damning attack, and when it was Raeesi’s turn to speak last, he seemed to have no effective response to it. When he claimed that he will also defend rights and that if Kurds were now able to study in their own language “it wasn’t thanks to you, Mr Rouhani, but thank to God,” he gave ammunition to the millions of people commenting on social media to make fun of him.
Raeesi, however, is still not a dead candidate. Even if Ghalibaf doesn’t withdraw in his favor, the key backing that he enjoys inside the establishment means that he can secure a few million votes, while the vote for the former mayor is more unpredictable.
With polling being scattered and unreliable, predicting elections is always a haphazard business in Iran. But it seems quite likely that President Rouhani will come on top on May 19. Will he secure the 50 percent necessary for an outright win or will he be forced to go to a second round? If the latter happens, he probably should wish to face Raeesi not Ghabliaf, who has been a much more effective candidate, despite the fact that he is strongly despised by an increasing number of Iranians.