Recorded or Live? Decision on broadcasting presidential debates sparks controversy.

Iranian Diplomacy- Wednesday afternoon, Iranian media reported that televised debates among presidential candidates would not be livestreamed, but recorded before being broadcast by state-run TV for the citizens. The decision, according to media, was made in the latest session of the Committee for Monitoring Presidential Election Campaigns, a legal body assigned to guarantee that electoral candidates receive an equal share of public facilities during the campaign period.

Conservative media promptly attributed the decision to Hassan Rouhani administration, accusing the president of pressing the campaign monitoring committee to block live broadcasting of debates. Tasnim website, affiliated with IRGC, said the decision stemmed from the government’s “fear of being challenged in these [debate] programs”, and its “failure to fulfill its promises” which had resulted in “unprecedented economic recession” and a “massive army of the unemployed”.

Principlist candidates were quick to jump on board and criticize the decision by the electoral campaign committee. Mostafa Mirsalim, candidate from the archconservative Mo’talefeh party called the decision “against citizenship rights”, while Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf also called for committee’s revisit of the decision.

Although Hassan Rouhani joined the chorus a while later, his less enthusiastic tone in support of live debates was noticeable. During a speech in the southern city of Shiraz, Rouhani said while he would not press the Committee for Monitoring Presidential Election Campaigns to take any specific course of action, he would like to ask them to take a look at the precedents and make the best decision. “I personally support the freest form of debate so the people could make the best choice” the Iranian president said.

In an attempt to acquit the administration from the allegation, Ministry of Interior released a statement on Friday afternoon. Pointing to the composition of Committee for Monitoring Presidential Election Campaigns, where the government holds only two seats out of five, the Interior Ministry statement said the decision for broadcasting debates as recorded programs was a collective decision, not solely that of the government.

Live televised presidential debates were first launched in 2009. And part of the post-election unrest that followed the tenth presidential election in 2009, that saw Ahmadinejad serving for another term as president, is attributed to the acrimonious mood of those debates. The bitter exchanges between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main rival Reformist-backed Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was said to have had a strong influence on the choice of undecided voters and bipolarization of the electoral competition of that year.

Interestingly, while Rouhani has been accused by political rivals of being behind cancellation of live debates, he owes his presidential seat largely to televised debates of June 2013 presidential election, and his impressive performance thanks to his clerical eloquence and offensive style of debate. Rouhani’s momentous comment, “I’m not a colonel, I’m a lawyer”, contrasting his own administrative skills against the military background of Tehran mayor and main rival Baqer Qalibaf, is known to have had a turned the votes in favor of the cleric and former nuclear negotiator, as well as his claim that Qalibaf, during his term as chief of Iran’s police forces, had plans of “pincer attack” against university students during their street protests of summer 2003.

Late on Friday, a member of IRIB Supervisory Council, legal body who oversees the conduct of state-run TV & radio and holds a seat in the Committee for Monitoring Presidential Election Campaigns said the final decision will be made after the Saturday session of the committee. “We hope to achieve consensus for live broadcasting of the debates,” said Ehsan Ghazizadeh-Hashemi. However, he refused to diclose representatives of which entities were against the option.