Candidates in Iran’s June 14 presidential election all agree that rampant inflation is the most pressing problem, but commentators Saturday bemoaned that in a first television debate none proposed real solutions.
Press commentators accepted the complaints of several candidates that the Friday debate’s format, which gave little scope for real discussion of issues, had not helped them present their policies.
But with inflation topping 30 percent after a 70 percent fall in the value of the rial against the dollar sent the cost of imports soaring, editorial writers, analysts and ordinary viewers agreed that the presidential hopefuls needed to set out more substantial policies.
The final eight candidates were approved by the Guardians Council, Iran’s unelected electoral watchdog, from 686 who registered to stand.
No women candidates were approved, and the disqualifications included moderate ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s close ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie.
Constitutionally, Ahmadinejad himself cannot stand for a third consecutive term.
“The candidates all said they were going to resolve the problem of inflation but none of them explained how they were going to do it,” complained one viewer interviewed by state television.
Economist Hossein Raghfar told the reformist Aftab newspaper that none of the eight appeared to have established economic policies.
“It had been expected that each candidate would present his own solutions to control inflation, unemployment or support for domestic production, but none of them showed a clear solution which means they did not have an established plan,” said Raghfar.
“In such circumstances, we cannot expect an improvement in the situation in the country.”
Analyst Mohammad Saleh Sedghian agreed.
“There was no debate on their various economic policies, and this would not give the electorate a clear idea of each candidate’s economic plans,” he told AFP.
Mohammad Mehdi Forqani, communications professor at a Tehran university, told the Mehr news agency that the candidates had not been helped by the format of the debate, which “did not have the element of challenge”.
“The multiple choice system of questioning was also not dignified for candidates in a presidential contest,” he added.
The lone reformist candidate, former first vice president Mohammad Reza Aref, refused to take part in one section of the broadcast in which each candidate was given multiple choice questions about his programme.
And conservative candidate Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards, told his own Tabnak website he would boycott the next two debates scheduled for Wednesday and Friday if the format does not change.
“I felt like I was back in elementary school… The fact that candidates were disrespected is not as important as the millions watching the debates being insulted,” moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani told reporters.
Conservative candidate Mohammad Gharazi said after the debate that “four hours was too much for both the candidates and the audience”.
The reformist Bahar newspaper called the quality of the debate “comical”.
Another reformist daily, Etemad, wrote: “Television has turned the most important political event into an entertainment programme.”
In the 2009 presidential election, voters saw heated exchanges between Ahmadinejad and his pro-reform opponents, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
Those debates revitalised that election, and were blamed partly for post-vote street unrest over claims of fraud when Ahmadinejad was re-elected.
Both Mousavi and Karroubi have now been under house arrest for more than two years.
Financial daily Donya-e Eghtessad acknowledged that controlling inflation was perhaps beyond the powers of any candidate this time around, as EU and US sanctions targeting the oil and banking sectors have slashed hard currency receipts, sending the rial into nosedive.
“The only solution is to inject sufficient quantities of hard currency into the economy,” it wrote in a editorial.
“But how do the candidates propose to do that when as a result of the oil and banking sanctions, the country’s hard currency receipts have fallen drastically?
“The candidates need to accept that inflation can’t be controlled though decrees and slogans,” it said.
The international response to the approved candidates was muted.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was “highly unlikely” that any of the eight would “represent the broad will of the Iranian people or represent a change”.
French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot urged Iran to allow the people to “freely choose” their leaders.
Tehran responded by accusing both Washington and Paris of interference.