Iran: second presidential debate turns into referendum on outgoing president

Iranian presidential candidates clashed in the country’s second electoral debate on Tuesday, just 10 days before polling stations opened.

While the fiery first round yielded few coherent answers, its sequel was lackluster, confusing, and left little room for direct discussion.

Viewers and the contestants themselves criticized the format, in which questions were chosen at random through a lottery system.

The host, TV presenter Morteza Heydari, imposed a strict four-minute limit on responses, often cutting off candidates’ responses in the middle of the sentence.

Sina Toossi, senior research analyst at the Iranian-American National Council, said that “the format of these debates is not conducive to eliciting substantive discussion from these candidates about themselves or their platforms.”

The restrictive format, he said, “prevents moderate candidates from maximizing the potential of these debates, which may be the intention behind them.”

The debate was supposed to focus on culture, society and politics, but turned into a referendum on the tenure of outgoing President Rouhani, not a speech on substantive political solutions.

The mostly die-hard candidates scoffed at Mr Rouhani’s previous campaign of hope, which focused on the now defunct nuclear deal.

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As the sole official in the Rouhani administration, former Central Bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati was immediately linked to the president’s failed policies, endorsing the criticisms leveled at the current administration.

Meanwhile, outright judicial leader Ebrahim Raisi, considered the favorite in the race, has largely escaped criticism. One candidate, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, however, drew attention to Mr Raisi’s likely electoral victory, claiming that “the sun, moon and universe” had been aligned by the Council of Guardians to make “one person president” .

After taking much of the blame for Mr. Rouhani, Mr. Hemmati attempted to defend himself by saying, “Some of you should send Trump a letter and say, ‘Mr. Trump, be happy, everything. what you did against the people blamed on Hemmati.

Iranian officials are hoping to increase turnout, long held by government officials and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself as a sign of confidence in the government. After the debate, the state-linked Iranian Student Survey Agency predicted a 38% turnout of the country’s 59 million eligible voters, which would be a historic low signaling the country’s deep apathy. Iranian electorate.

The low turnout will not affect the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic as it sees itself as a permanent establishment that has lasted for 43 years

Economic sanctions, corruption and a general lack of confidence in the government largely fuel the disinterest.

Mr Raisi, the ultra-tough candidate, is said to be a favorite of Mr Khamenei and a potential successor.

He spoke of the lack of confidence in the government, blaming much of the apathy on Mr Rouhani.

“The living conditions of the people have been severely damaged. People’s businesses have been badly damaged. People’s trust in government is perhaps at its lowest in years and has been badly damaged, ”he said.

Ironically, growing criticism of the upcoming election largely stems from the perception that Mr Raisi is already the presidential candidate, meaning very few societal changes are likely to be implemented. Calls for an election boycott have increased as the elections draw closer, although Mr Khamenei has said it is a sin not to vote.

But Fereshteh Sadeghi, journalist in Tehran, said that in this election, participation may no longer matter. Speaking at an event at Johns Hopkins University for post-debate analysis, Ms Sadeghi said that “the low turnout will not affect the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic as it sees itself as a permanent establishment that lasts. for 43 years. If the economic situation improves, the Islamic Republic will take advantage for the next elections.

Although many are already expecting a victory for Mr Raisi, the June 18 elections are far from over.

“The Iranian elections are notoriously unpredictable, and the dynamics of the race could very well change just days before the vote on June 18,” Toossi said. There are only two reformist moderate candidates in the race, he said, and they have used the debates to speak directly to the public, urging them to vote.

The impending election stands amid tensions between Iran and the West as negotiations to resuscitate the nuclear deal continue in Vienna, Austria. Questions during the deal’s debate gave candidates such as Saeed Jalili the opportunity to criticize the Rouhani administration for its west-facing policies. He said the government was “waiting” on the West rather than focusing on regional alliances.

Mr Raisi, the frontrunner and longtime critic of the original nuclear deal, said he would make lifting the sanctions a priority. Hours before the debate, a government spokesperson confirmed that talks would continue regardless of who is elected.

US sanctions have taken a huge toll on the Iranian economy and have become the focal point of all campaigns.

Since President Trump‘s withdrawal from the deal, Iran has made it clear that any future deal will require the lifting of US sanctions. But on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a Senate hearing that he “expects that, even if compliance with the JCPOA is restored, hundreds of sanctions remain in place, including sanctions imposed. by the Trump administration “.

The next and final debate will take place on June 12, six days before the elections.

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