Election debates cast shadow on future of Iran politics


By Selim Celal

ISTANBUL

The Iranian presidential election is approaching its final stage. Out of the 1,600 individuals who filed their nominations, the Guardian Council confirmed only six people.

Later, two candidates, including Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and First Vice President Ishaq Jahangiri withdrew from the race. Among the remaining four, President Hassan Rouhani is representing the moderates and Ibrahim Raeesi the conservatives. Mir Salim and Hashemi Taba — though politically associated with the conservative camp — do not seem to hold any significant weight.

Jahangiri on Tuesday withdrew in favor of his boss before the election campaign end, as a result of which the reformists’ votes is expected to divert wholly towards Rouhani.

The rumors about the withdrawal of Qalibaf in favor of Raeesi finally turned out to be true. He has already ended his campaign and appealed to his supporters to vote for Raeesi. Nevertheless, there are serious doubts about the effectiveness of his appeal.

Although Qalibaf and Raeesi both belong to the same camp, their vote banks are distinct. Qalibaf’s voters would not necessarily vote for Raeesi because they are from the general body of the conservative camp, whose leadership has no control over them. A certain segment of Qalibaf’s voters could even go for President Rouhani. Therefore, the main beneficiary of Qalibaf’s withdrawal may be Rouhani, not Raeesi.

If Raeesi had withdrawn in favor of Qalibaf, his votes could have easily been directed to Qalibaf. That is because Raeesi was in principle a representative of the establishment. To be specific, Raeesi’s vote bank is comprised of voters controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, the clergy in Qom and other institutions under the supreme leadership. All these formal and informal institutions are directed to campaign and vote for Raeesi. That is why, with a simple hint, they could change their loyalty to any candidate favored by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Consequently, any rational arrangement in the conservative camp would require Raeesi to sacrifice, which seemed impossible, given the current extraordinary mobilization of the entire establishment behind him.

However, for the time being Raeesi has emerged as the sole candidate of the conservative camp. In the absence of any scientifically conducted independent opinion poll, it is difficult to guess the final winner. Yet, the main loser of the overall electoral process is as clear as day: the Iranian theocratic political system. One would need to understand that in the Iranian elections, including the presidential one, choosing a president or a parliamentarian is a secondary objective. The primary objective attached to all these elections is to gain internal and external legitimacy for the theocratic establishment.

So far, the Iranian establishment has always tried to improve the process of election to have maximum control over the election’s outcome and the issues surrounding it. Despite all these efforts, in every election something goes wrong, and the situation gets out of control. This time also the Iranian establishment has suffered from some major blows. It was particularly evident during the three rounds of the so-called presidential debates.

Since 2009, presidential election debates have emerged as the most important side event of the presidential election campaign. In the election that year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad utilized the debates to carry out character assassinations of his political rivals. The outspoken Ahmadinejad came along with documents related to misuse of power by his rivals and displayed them live for the viewers. To avoid such a problem in the 2013 presidential election, instead of one-on-one debates among candidates, three rounds of group debate were organized. However, the first round hardly seemed like a debate but was rather like a multiple-choice test. A moderator would ask them a question and the candidates would have to choose the correct answer from four available options. Most of the time, the candidates preferred to say “the question is incorrect” or would suggest a fifth answer. In the later days, the show turned into a laughing stock for the public.

In this year’s election, the authorities were initially reluctant to hold debates at all. Later on, given the importance of the debates for ensuring an acceptable turnout ratio, a key issue in Iranian election, the authorities finally agreed to organize three rounds of group debates. Each candidate was supposed to answer a question picked on lottery basis by a moderator, and then other candidates would critique his answers.

The debates provided a clear and concrete view into the internal situation of the Iranian political establishment, its moral decay and institutional failure. No one from the outside could make this job sound so fantastical.

It was a few months ago that the supreme leader of Iran criticized American presidential candidates for their debating style. According to him, the American presidential candidates revealed the true face of American politics. The supreme leader specifically expressed his gratitude to Donald Trump for relieving the burden of the Islamic Republic, and emphasized that whatever the Islamic Republic had been saying about the political, economic, moral and social corruption of the American establishment, Mr. Trump exposed them all at once.

Ironically, the Iranian presidential candidates have done worse than American presidential nominees. Instead of engaging in critical discussions, they used the debate platform to attack their rivals. All of them were good in their attacks, but were very poor in their defenses. Each one possessed evidence of corruption against the other. Interestingly, some even tried to make their rivals feel obliged and thankful by disclosing that they had helped them in hiding these corruption documents. For instance, Rouhani said to Qalibaf that he had possessed his corruption file for years but had fought with his colleagues to not leak it, simply to prove his manhood.

One should not forget that these candidates have been handpicked and their qualifications are confirmed by the Guardian Council in tandem with Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution based on such criteria as resourcefulness, a good past record, trustworthiness, piety etc.

It is also necessary to note that Donald Trump was an outsider. He was not part of the establishment. So, his accusations of the establishment could make sense. But in the case of Iranian presidential candidates, all candidates have been serving in high-profile positions in the Islamic Republic since the very beginning of its establishment in 1979. Nonetheless, they have all been talking in a way as if they were outsiders who have just come to Iran to save the people from the yokes of a corrupt system.

The candidates’ conduct during the debates made the supreme leader warn them before the third round to focus on external enemies and make their positions clear about Israel and the U.S. as well as towards the so-called “seditious group” — the official way of referencing the Green Movement and its co-leaders Moosavi and Karrobi. But the supreme leader’s warning went unheeded. None of the candidates mentioned Israel and the U.S., but rather they intensified their attacks on each other and even crossed the boundaries of politeness. For instance, Qalibaf called President Rouhani a “liar” and President Rouhani addressed Raeesi with pronoun tu (singular form of you in Persian which is considered highly impolite in the Iranian culture) instead of shuma (plural form of you).

Apart from character assassination, no candidate had a clear-cut plan. The conservative candidate’s strategy was based on offering popular incentives such as multiplying the amount of cash subsidy without a proper economic approach. On the other hand, the strategy of President Rouhani and Vice President Jahangiri was based on creating panic among the voters. They kept on telling people that the country would regress to the Ahmadinejad years should any of their rivals win.

Moreover, besides throwing a spotlight on each other’s personal incapacities, they also emphasized the deficiencies of the institutions their rivals were affiliated with. For example, Raeesi and Qalibaf accused government institutions of being involved in smuggling. President Rouhani accused the judiciary of not punishing “the smugglers”.

While all these candidates resorted to quantitative arguments, the statistics they used were not consistent. For instance, as one candidate mentioned the volume of smuggling totaling about $25 billion, the other would use a different figure. The reason is that each one was using his own source of information rather than a reliable institution recognized nationwide. While the purpose of the statistical arguments was to facilitate people in their judgments, the inconsistencies therein rendered the public and the viewers more confused than before. After all, there is a saying: “If you are not able to convince one, try to confuse him”.

The election will be over very soon. One of these candidates will become the president of the Islamic Republic. But the socio-political polarization of the society deepened during the election will persevere for years to come. Public trust is the main capital of every political system. The style of debate, the kinds of information leaked, the background of some of the candidates, the issues that were highlighted were all in contradiction of a healthy trust-building process that should normally occur between the citizens and their ruling elites.

[Selim Celal is a Turkey-based writer and an expert on Iran’s foreign policy and domestic politics.]

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.


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