Disqualification of Iran's presidential contenders sparks debate
President Rouhani says elections without competition like soulless body as 7 out of 592 candidates receive green signal
"The soul of an election is competition," Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said during a cabinet meeting in Tehran on Wednesday. "If you take out the competition, it [election] becomes like a soulless body, and collapses."
Rouhani's remarks came a day after the country's top election supervisory body disqualified many key reformist candidates from June 18 presidential election, leaving the field open for conservatives.
A total of seven candidates out of 592 received green light from the Guardian Council to run for the presidency, including five conservatives and two reformists, raising eyebrows in the already beleaguered reformist camp.
Prominent reformist candidates, including Rouhani's first vice president Ishaq Jahangiri faced rejection from the powerful vetting body. Ali Larijani, who has recently veered toward the reformist camp, also got thumbs down. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disqualification, however, was expected.
Irked by the Guardian Council's vetting, Rouhani said he found the disqualification of some candidates in violation of the country's Constitution, forcing him to write a letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The outgoing reformist president suggested that the candidates' rejection could affect voter turnout, and low participation of people is detrimental to national interests.
Hours after Iran's Interior Ministry released the list of approved candidates on Tuesday, top reformist contender Jahangiri issued an emotional statement, saying he sought "refuge in God," terming disqualifications a "serious threat to public participation and fair competition" in the democratic exercise.
Jahangiri, who dropped out of the race in 2017 in favor of Rouhani, was tipped to be the frontline reformist challenger this time around, after Foreign Minister Javad Zarif turned down calls to join the cut-throat battle.
Holding the Guardian Council responsible for "political and social fallout" of the decision, Jahangiri said he had entered the electoral race to "develop Iran" and to start a "new phase of reform" in the country.
On Wednesday, after announcing the end of his fleeting election campaign, the senior reformist fired a salvo at the powerful 12-member election vetting body.
"I came to introduce the founders of present situation (in the country), Guardian Council made my job easier," he quipped.
Larijani, a principlist who has lately sought to project himself as a reformist, even entering into a war of words on social media with a conservative presidential candidate Saeed Jalili announced his exit rather quietly following the council's announcement.
In a statement, the former parliament speaker said he decided to contest the election to ensure maximum participation of people and to serve the country. But the journey was short-lived.
While he maintained his calm, some of Larijani's family and friends couldn't hide their angst. His brother Sadeq Amoli Larijani, who heads the influential government body Expediency Council and is a member of Guardian Council, criticized the decision, claiming interference of security agencies in the council's affairs.
A day later, in a U-turn, he said the decisions of Guardian Council need to be respected.
Ahmedinejad, who had earlier threatened not to vote if disqualified, released a video message on Wednesday, addressing the Council: “I want you to publicly announce, on television, in my presence, the reason for my disqualification with evidence."
His campaign manager Ahmed Alireza Beigi vented his ire in the parliament, criticizing what he termed the house's silence on disqualification of candidates, including Ahmedinejad.
"This is not the way to run the country, by disregarding the will of people," the senior lawmaker said. "You can’t expect them to defend the Islamic Republic when it is faced with threats."
Mohsen Mehralizadeh, one of the two reformists to get the green signal from the Guardian Council, also joined the chorus on Wednesday, saying it was "not possible to claim religiosity and promote the process of eliminating others."
The Reform Front, the top body of Iranian reformists, has reportedly endorsed him as its candidate, giving him an edge over fellow reformist and Iran's central bank chief AbdolNaser Hemmati.
While the rejection of some candidates was expected, given the constitutionally mandated vetting body's recent directive setting new criteria for presidential hopefuls, some rejections have stirred a debate in the country's political and media circles.
Even the top conservative candidate Ebrahim Raeisi, approved by the council, has been quoted as saying he lobbied with higher officials to have reformists in the race to make the election competitive.
The Guardian Council, however, has refused to revise its decision, saying it took several factors into consideration before approving or disapproving the candidates.
In an interview with state television on Tuesday, Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei said the council does not make decisions based on political groups or factions, but using the Constitution as a benchmark.
Not many seem impressed with the vetting process this time.
Commenting on disqualifications, Sayed Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Iran's founder Ayatollah Khomeini and a prominent reformist figure, on Wednesday, termed it a "counter-revolutionary move," which he said "weakens the foundations of legitimacy and acceptability of an Islamic system."
Pertinently, Khomeini had dropped his plans to run for the presidency after his meeting with Khamenei, who apparently advised him against it.
Azar Mansoori, a reformist politician and spokesperson for a reformist coalition, in response to the Guardian Council's announcement said it has "deprived reformists the opportunity to actively participate" in the upcoming election. She accused the council of "removing people from the decision-making process in the affairs of the country."
Ali Shakourirad, a senior reformist figure, urged Raeisi, Mehralizadeh, and Hemmati, to withdraw from the race as "honor demands," saying it will hurt their personal credibility.
The chorus against the Guardian Council's decision has been reverberating beyond the political corridors as well.
Dr. Mohammadreza Zafarghandi, president of the Medical Council of Iran, termed it "election engineering," which he feared will dissuade people from participating in the upcoming election, which will take place in less than three weeks.
Mostafa Faghihi, a journalist with Entekhab News, said he has "never seen" the Guardian Council come under such intense scrutiny over the disqualification of presidential candidates, from both far-left and far-right.
Ordinary people have also been surprised by the announcement, with growing fears that the June 18 election might see a low turnout.
"Some disqualifications were not particularly puzzling, but some of them should have been in the race to make it competitive," said Rohullah Nikzad, a university student and artist. "It has rendered the exercise lopsided, in favor of one particular political current."
Some like Hadi Kamrani, a real estate consultant in Tehran, feel the timely intervention of Supreme Leader Khamenei could help in bringing back some disqualified candidates, which can lead to "maximum participation" of people.
"As we have seen in past elections, Supreme Leader can persuade the Guardian Council to revise its decision to make the democratic exercise fair and competitive and also to protect the democratic values," he remarked.
The seven approved candidates, meanwhile, have kick-started their respective campaigns, which will continue until June 16, two days before the election. They will be given time slots on national television to relay their plans and programs, and there will also be three live televised debates between them.
The Interior Ministry has said polls will be held in adherence to COVID-19 guidelines to avoid the resurgence of another wave.
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