Iran’s televised presidential debates are rarely cut and dried affairs, and April 28’s was no exception. After the first candidates set out what their plans would be were they to become president, most people were starting to lose interest in what looked to be a dull contest between the six presidential hopefuls.
The three-hour debate only began to get interesting in the second half when social media participants started juggling the list of frontrunners and no-hopers. Some, in awe at the fight shown by President Hassan Rouhani’s first deputy Eshaq Jahangiri - patently only running to protect Rouhani from taking too much fire from hardliners - even spread online memes calling him “Super Isaac”, with his head superimposed onto Superman’s body.
Former President Mohammad Khatami - who was barred from having his face shown by media in the country following the 2009 protests at alleged electoral fraud in favour of the re-election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - had uploaded a picture of Rouhani and Jahangiri stood together with a quote from the Quran - “And then came Isaac” - in reference to Jahangiri’s support of reformist factions in the country.
First to the podium in the debate was former conservative culture minister Mostafa Mir-Salim. He decried rural-to-urban migration; all the candidates in fact agreed that too many villagers were moving to the major cities including Tehran and that something had to be done about it. Then the first side-swipe from Jahangiri towards pragmatic conservative and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf arrived when he claimed the mayor’s population figures were four years out of date.
Raisi out of sorts
Religious judge Ebrahim Raisi, seen as the hardline candidate in with the best chance of displacing reformist Rouhani, took a few minutes to state his points. Most observers thought he lacked composure and looked out of sorts while dealing with the onslaught of comments given that he has been so built up as the ultimate competitor to the centrists.
His assigned question to answer was on social justice and how to better the environment in that area. Raisi’s comments were well rehearsed, if not new. He stated that people should receive larger cash handouts to raise the nation’s wealth distribution ranking on the Gini Index. Tripling the subsidies would be good for society, he said. In response, Rouhani took direct aim at his custodianship of the multi-billion dollar religious foundation Astan Razavi al-Quds, saying: “You should strike a balance between the eastern and western parts of the country.”
Rouhani appeared on the podium after pro-reform former vice-president Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, who discussed further mass housing projects akin to those of the Ahmadinejad administration. The incumbent was given “youth marriage” as his issue. In his four-minute speech, he predictably said that providing bigger mortgages to young couples and promoting marriage would help bring “hope to the youth”, taking a reference from his 2013 election campaign run under the banner “Hope and justice.”
During comments, Qalibaf challenged Rouhani’s record on delivering his pledges and attempted to humiliate him with supposed comments he had uttered prior to his election on creating jobs, claiming he had documents with him to prove he made the remarks; a device used by Ahmadinejad against his opponents in his re-election campaign eight years ago.
Things get heated
Next up with a provided theme was Jahangiri. Tackling the question of reducing bureaucracy he said his current government role was pushing through e-government plans given his brief in public development.
During comments, the cold war of words between Qalibaf and Jahangiri turned rather hot with the mayor accusing the vice-president of “just being here for the president; he has no real chance in running”. The snide comment provoked Jahangiri to argue with the mayor. He declared that it was “his right to run for the presidency”, pointing to how he had held every other conceivable post since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution. He then added: “I stand here for all the reformists you people have sidelined.”
Qalibaf responded in part by saying: “You are from the family of a martyr [from the Iran-Iraq War].” The remark was on why he would want to stand for the presidency, and in response Jahangiri’s face was incredulous. He shot back: “Thanks for that, I am from the family of a war martyr.” The insinuation was that Qalibaf had just unwittingly scored an own goal.
Jahangiri then added: “Look what you did to Hashemi Rafsanjani, shame on you.” Rafsanjani, who died in January, was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic and president from 1989-1997. He was marginalised by hardliners, including Qalibaf’s faction.
By that point, the row between Jahangiri and Qalibaf was boiling over to the point that they began to attempt to snub each other’s records.
Qalibaf was the last person to the podium, and Jahangiri was ready to slight the mayor’s performance by claiming that the recent development of certain areas of Tehran was controversially permitted by Qalibaf. Rouhani joined in on this front, saying Qalibaf’s record on over-development was well known, and that his authorisation to build high-rise buildings down small alleyways in North Tehran was atrocious.
Just before the break, Rouhani interrupted the moderator saying that he wanted to get something of his chest, namely that “Qalibaf’s claims about my saying that I would create four million new jobs are baseless”.
The moderator was then prompted by the voice in his ear to cut to the commercials.
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