None of Iran's eight presidential candidates were prepared for the public humiliation they suffered during the election's first televised debate on May 31. The program's moderator informed them that he would be asking them yes-or-no questions - "to liven up the discussion," as he put it. (In a few cases, somewhat more daringly, he offered the option of multiple choice answers.) A few of the candidates refused to comply, complaining that the questions were too vague. Predictably enough, the debate-that-wasn't-quite-a debate quickly became fodder for social media satirists. Perhaps as a result, in the third debate in last week, the candidates were granted much greater leeway to criticize each other. Looming over the proceedings, however, was a large digital clock tracking how much time each one of them spoke -- clearly an effort to limit the time in which they could actually reach out to voters.
The spectacle of the anesthetized debates underlines the predicament in which Iran's ruling elite now finds itself. The presidential election is one of the few realms in which a certain degree of political competition has been allowed to exist over the years. And even though the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final word on state matters (and even though many Iranians believe the vote on Friday will be rigged), voters still see the elections as their one chance to express their preference for more moderate policies. They know that the president sets the tone for domestic and foreign policy even though he has little constitutional power compared to Khamenei. So they know that this is a contest that matters.
As a result, the Iranian presidential election has always had the potential to introduce a certain degree of unpredictability -- as happened in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of disgruntled voters took to the streets to protest alleged tampering with the election results. These events compelled Khamenei to throw his political capital into the fray in defense of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a figure he had backed in the 2005 elections in order to sideline moderate politicians). Now Ahmadinejad's term is over, and he's leaving office for an uncertain future.
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Khamenei and his underlings clearly don't want to see a repeat of the turmoil of four years ago. So last month they made their most dramatic move yet: The watchdog Guardian Council barred Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founding father of the 1979 revolution, from running in the election. The Council, a group charged with interpreting the constitution, supervising elections, and approving candidates, is controlled by Khamenei. It has cleared eight candidates, among them two low-key independents. Two of the candidates withdrew this week -- one of them a moderate who asked his voters to throw their support to Hassan Rowhani, the one reputed reformist left in the group.
The Guardian Council's rejection of Rafsanjani sent shock waves through the country. Ridiculing the disqualification, parliament member Ali Motahari said [in Farsi] that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution) would probably be barred from the race if he tried to run today. "The system is becoming more authoritarian by the day," said former member of Parliament Fatemeh Haghighatjoo. "Mr. Khamenei doesn't realize that he is making himself and the regime more vulnerable." She noted that Khamenei cannot, in the long term, run this regime alone.
Spooked by memories of the 2009 protests, the regime is once more resorting to police-state methods to cripple the oppositions' ability to attract voters. Government forces patrol the streets, looking for what they refer to as "sedition." Hundreds of activists remain imprisoned, including two reformist candidates from the 2009 race who are under house arrest. Campaigners were summoned for questioning this month and parole rights of imprisoned activists have been withdrawn. The government has slowed the Internet to a crawl and blocked certain websites. It's gotten so bad that even the conservative media have been complaining about censorship.