The six candidates, approved by the Guardian Council and given tactical approval by Khamenei, met for their first presidential debate last week. While the debate was largely a session filled with accusations and few plans to move the country’s economy forward, one candidate also seemed to weaken his position with a poor performance.
Hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi was seen by many in Iran as a favorite of the Supreme Leader and one that could give Rouhani a run for his money as Rouhani tried for his second term in office. Yet, by the end of the weekend, there were doubts that Raisi’s candidacy was even viable.
There are three planned debates scheduled ahead of the May 19th election. These debates have become a popular feature of the elections, drawing large audiences and producing a number of memorable moments. They can also serve to make or break a candidate, since the Iranian election cycle is so short.
Friday’s debate was supposed to focus on social issues, but instead, seemed to focus on issues pertaining to the economy and the plight of poorer Iranians. Raisi, who is seen as a potential successor to Khamenei, kept a low profile and did little to make an impact, according to observers.
While he spoke largely about increasing subsides to the poor, he didn’t bring up a plan to pay for this increase. He also was unable to bring the charisma of Ahmadinejad to the debate, thus limiting the effect of his attempt to harness the populist message to his advantage.
“Regardless of the question, Raisi hammered the key populist policies of alleviating poverty, reducing unemployment, and providing government housing,” said Reza H. Akbari, program manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Washington. Yet in spite of this, it seems that Raisi might not be able to survive in the tricky political arena Iran’s regime has created.
What is interesting about a country run by a Supreme Leader is that most presidents are virtually guaranteed a second term. But Rouhani’s strategy of outreach to the West, particularly for investment capital, has been met with suspicion, especially since it has not brought the promised improvement to the lives of everyday Iranians.
Ultimately, there were no true winners, but it was clear that the Iranian people wouldn’t be getting new policies with a new president, but simply politics as usual.