Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Dull debates

Rouhani has been adding much-needed spice to otherwise dull television debates before the Iranian presidential elections in May

After two rounds of presidential election debates in Iran, the wave of support needed genuinely to raise interest among the public has yet to be seen.

One reason is the lack of public satisfaction over living standards and also disappointment over the president’s apparent inability to make the changes he promised and reform a system dominated by oppressive hardliners and their supporters in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The only chance that the candidates have to reveal themselves to the public before the elections is during the debates that take place during the campaign, and these are rare opportunities for the public to hear some of what goes on behind the iron curtain that normally separates people in Iran from the ruling Shia hierarchy.

Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani does not have much charisma, but his performance in confronting the hardliners and the performance of First Vice President Ishaq Jahangiri, also running in this year’s elections, have added spice to the debates.

This year’s elections are not much different from their predecessors, but they are important as Iran is at a crossroads, and the country needs to decide whether it is going to be a modern, integrated, and powerful force for good in the world or whether it is going to revert to being a closed system in which corruption and competing political agendas stymie economic growth.

According to commentators, Iran needs someone as president with a proven track record who will continue the trajectory of economic growth and growth in diplomatic status and environmental sustainability. This president needs to be experienced in both the domestic and the international policy domains, they say.

Among the six candidates running in this year’s elections, two have a history of silencing dissent and restricting the expression of political views. Without diplomatic career experience, what they have to say mainly refers to domestic affairs like distributing cash among the neediest sections of the population.

Horrifying images of poverty in a nation that has vast sources of wealth are shameful and speak of deep-rooted corruption in the system. Iran still has a long way to go in meeting the needs of all its population, but it has come a long way from its most difficult days when it was faced with crippling international sanctions and inflation reached double digits at 40 per cent under the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compared to nine per cent under Rouhani.

Before 2013, the world was united against Iran, whereas now it speaks to Iran in a language of respect. This is evident in Iran’s participation in the international talks on the Syrian crisis, the success of the Iranian nuclear deal with the West, and the conclusion of major economic deals that benefit the Iranian people’s everyday lives (the deals with Boeing and Airbus will improve airline safety in Iran, for example).

The Iranian economy is projected to grow by as much as six per cent this year, indicating that the country is on a positive trajectory, and observers believe that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also agreed to the current reforms.

All Iranian presidents since 1981 have served two terms in office, an implicit understanding within regime circles that discourages potentially strong challengers. Khamenei has also long favoured continuity over perfect obedience, preferring to tolerate and contain the ability of past presidents to challenge him through a popular agenda.

Despite the challenges brought up by Rouhani and Jahangiri in the television debates with the hardliners, accusing the latter of throwing stones on the path of improving the economy and making problems with the nuclear deal, the supreme leader has not commented in public.

On a campaign trip to the city of Hamadan on 8 May, Rouhani said that “if we don’t participate in the elections, they will build walls in the streets. You don’t know them. I do.” He was referring to hardline candidates Ibrahim Raisi and Mohamed-Bagher Ghalibaf who have said they want to separate men and women on the streets of the country’s towns and cities if they win the elections.

The third and last presidential debate before the Iranian presidential elections takes place on 12 May.

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