Iran candidates exchange barbs in fiery final debate

AFP , Friday 12 May 2017

Iranian President and presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani speaks during a campaign rally in Tehran on May 9, 2017 (Photo: AFP)

Iran's six presidential candidates exchanged barbs in their final debate on Friday, accusing each other of corruption and economic mismanagement a week ahead of the election.

Seeking a second four-year term, moderate President Hassan Rouhani has been on the offensive all week, framing the vote as a choice between greater social freedoms and repression.

But the theme of Friday's debate was the economy, where continued stagnation and high unemployment have given plenty of ammunition to his conservative opponents.

Hardline Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf repeatedly returned to his theme that Rouhani's administration had only benefited the "four percenters" at the top of society.

"The country is facing an economic crisis, with unemployment, recession and inflation. A tree that has not born any fruit in four years will not yield anything positive in the future," said Ghalibaf.

"Tens of thousands of our factories have been closed and they are continuing to close."

Rouhani hit back that Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers had ended sanctions and brought a windfall from the return of oil sales over the past year that could now be invested.

"We want to allocate $15 billion for investments... and $3-5 billion for supporting the poor and needy," he said.

He said handouts would be focused on rural and deprived areas -- places where conservatives have tended to perform more strongly.

Cleric and jurist Ebrahim Raisi is seen as the leading conservative, though still a distant second to Rouhani in unofficial polls ahead of the May 19 vote.

He kept up his efforts to reach out to poor and religiously conservative voters.

"The people expect government members to fear God," he said.

"Poverty has increased with this government from 23 percent to 33 percent. We must increase direct aid to the poor," he added, accusing Rouhani's government of only boosting subsidies at the last minute to grab votes.

"Why did you wait for the election campaign to increase aid? Why didn't you do it four years ago? The people are intelligent and they will decide."

The six candidates selected to run by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council are evenly split between moderate-reformists on one side and hardliners on the other, and the debates have the feel of two teams clashing.

Some of the fiercest exchanges were between Ghalibaf and Iran's reformist vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, who accused each other of corruption and making empty promises.

"We should check how many of the statements by the candidates are real and just slogans to fool the people," said Jahangiri.

He said the Tehran municipality had sold properties at cut-rate prices to allies, while Ghalibaf hit back that the vice president had himself acquired huge houses on the cheap.

Ghalibaf's attacks appeared carefully prepared, with documents alleging to back up his claims released on to social media within minutes of him speaking.

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