TEHRAN — In the nights leading up to the 2009 election, hundreds of thousands of Tehran residents flooded the streets in a show of excitement over a presidential contest that few had expected would attract much attention.
Today, however, Iran’s vast capital does not look like a city that will help to choose a new president on Friday. Four years after contested ballot results that led to months of unrest here, authorities have gone to great lengths to minimize public campaign events, shifting the focus to the quiet of Iranian living rooms.
That change has also been reflected on state media outlets, which have been tasked as the main engine of creating public interest in the election. Instead of the live, one-on-one televised debates that it introduced in 2009, Iran’s state television network, known as the IRIB, has adopted a more subdued round-table format.
Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps who is making his second consecutive bid for the presidency, said of the new approach: “It seems IRIB is afraid of the incidents of 2009, which became too extreme.”
The 2009 debates between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi — the latter two men became the leaders of the post-election protest movement — are credited as among the major factors behind the political fervor that posed a challenge to the Iranian authorities.
Watched by tens of thousands of Tehran residents in parks and large squares, those debates featured the candidates making pointed accusations at one another, exposing damning information that had long been the subject of rumors and opening a channel of public dialogue that previously had not existed.
If the revised format for this year’s debates are any indication, authorities are determined to avoid stirring those kinds of passions this time around.
“There’s no comparison to 2009. Many people decided to vote because of what they saw in those debates,” said Elham, a 28-year-old secretary, who like others interviewed for this article insisted that she identified only by her first name because of possible retribution. “Now, one of candidates in the last debate was begging people to vote; four years ago, the excitement itself dragged people to polls.”
In addition to the debates, the state-television network allotted six hours to each candidate, which they have used to show biographical documentaries, tout their past accomplishments, give long interviews and take questions from Iranians living abroad. Other state-television broadcasts have posed questions to Iranian voters.
A first debate, held on May 31, was so roundly panned by viewers and participants that state television introduced some changes meant to promote more engagement. A third and final debate, held last Friday, highlighted deeper divisions between the eight candidates, allowing rivalries over the candidates’ handling of national security issues, including the international confrontation over its nuclear program, to bubble to the surface.
In that session, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister, accused fellow candidate and current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili of failing to produce tangible progress in nuclear talks with world powers. In another clash, Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator and the only cleric in the race, sparred over their roles in handling student protests in 2003.
“I guess the system wants to have a majority of people coming to vote, but at the same time is worried about creating too much excitement, because that energy would be hard to contain,’’ said Abbas, a 35 year-old teacher, who also declined to give his last name. “As they say, a burnt child dreads the fire.”
Some political figures, though, say that fears for post-election unrest are unfounded because of a presidential vetting process that barred from this year’s race the candidates seen as most likely to generate a volatile response.
“IRIB is naturally worried about arranging one-on-one debates after 2009, but these fears are unjustified, because this time there is no candidate like Ahmadinejad,” said Ali Motahari, a conservative lawmaker, who has been critical of the handling of the 2013 election thus far.