The Iranian government has barred more than 2,000 prospective candidates from contesting in forthcoming parliamentary elections, in effect removing the biggest rival to hardliners in power.
Most of those disqualified were seeking democratic changes within Iran's ruling Islamic government led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president.
The March 14 poll is being seen as a test of Ahmadinejad's grip on power and an early indicator of how the 2009 presidential race could go.
Out of an initial 7,200 prospective candidates registered, some 5,000 remain in the race, a senior interior ministry official in charge of elections said.
Ali Reza Afshar official figure was lower than the 3,000 candidates that reformist newspapers and several party officials said had been disqualified.
Under the Iranian political system, potential candidates must be vetted twice, once by the interior ministry and the second time by the Guardian Council, the country's constitutional watchdog.
But Afshar said those disqualified can appeal the decision.
He said that "instead of resorting to political fuss and taking the issue to the press, those disqualified can appeal through legal channels".
The council will announce a final list of approved candidates on March 5 after determining if any are disloyal to principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The government said it mailed letters to prospective candidates informing them of the decision, which has provoked widespread condemnation from reformists.
|"The number of candidates disqualified is surprising"|
Abdollah Naseri, reformist group spokesman
Abdollah Naseri, spokesman for an umbrella group of 21 reformist factions, said worrying reports have been confirmed.
"The number of candidates disqualified is surprising."
Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president and reformist, said the government had no right to deprive Iranians the right to contest.
Many of those disqualified were key legislators or cabinet ministers during Khatami's tenure.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in Tehran, Saeed Shariati, a spokesman for the reformist Participation party, said one of the main concerns was a move towards a closed administration with power centralised in one person.
"[That] is the beginning of deterioration of any political structure in the new age."