Iranians vote on Friday in a parliamentary election that conservatives are expected to win after many opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were barred from running as candidates. ( Reuters )
Many pro-reform politicians, the staunchest critics of the hardline president, were disqualified from the race in a pre-vote screening process that has narrowed the field.
But Ahmadinejad is not guaranteed an easy ride even with a win by conservatives because the camp includes allies of the president, critics of his economic policies, and those looking beyond this election to the presidential race next year.
Parliament does not decide on major policy issues such as how to handle Iran's nuclear row with the West. But food prices, not foreign policy, are what most ordinary Iranians worry about.
"I hope this time they do a better job and pay more attention to the economy, the housing problem and inflation," said Soraya Tavasoli, a middle-aged woman backing conservatives.
Others are wondering whether to vote at all, despite a call from the clerical establishment for a high turnout to defy Iran's "enemies" - the United States and its Western allies.
"Hollow promises (by politicians) don't count. What counts is action," said Zahra Mehramiz, 47, who plans to stay home.
The election may offer pointers on Ahmadinejad's chances for re-election in 2009 although that may depend more on whether he retains the approval of Iran's top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has often praised him.
"People in choosing parliamentarians should also consider voting for those who can pave the way for the current goverment which is active and willing to serve," Khamenei was quoted as saying by Kargozaran newspaper.
Analysts say the vote may give only a partial picture of Ahmadinejad's popularity after the unelected Guardian Council, which checks hopefuls for commitment to Islam and other criteria, barred many reformists. The council denies bias.
"People are not given a free choice about who to vote for. Therefore it's not a fully accurate guide to political opinion in Iran," said one Western diplomat.
Reformists seeking political and social change had hoped to capitalise on public discontent about inflation, now at 19 percent. But after the vetting process, they may struggle to keep the 40 or so seats they hold in the 290-seat assembly now.
They say the election is unfair but have still urged Iran's 44 million eligible voters to turn out.
Conservatives, who pride themselves on their loyalty to Iran's system of clerical rule, control the outgoing parliament and backed Ahmadinejad when he ran for president in 2005. Many have since become more critical of his economic policies.
While reformists say Ahmadinejad's fiery speeches helped prompt three rounds of U.N. sanctions, many conservatives back him for vowing no compromise with the West, which accuses Iran of seeking nuclear weapons. Tehran denies the charge.