More than 3,400 candidates across Iran have launched their campaigns for next week's parliamentary elections, which mark the first test of popularity for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since his disputed 2009 re-election.
The week-long parliamentary election campaign began on Thursday, the official IRNA news agency said.
The March 2 vote is likely to highlight the popularity of the clerical establishment as it stands firm against Western
pressure to curb its nuclear programme.
The vote will be especially hard fought between Ahmadinejad's supporters and opponents within the conservative camp, and will focus attention on the political rivalry between the president and his adversaries within the ruling system.
The election, the first since the 2009 vote that sparked unrest and a crushing state response, is shaping up as a contest among clerical and political conservatives.
With a no-show by leading pro-reform groups, loyalists of Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, and backers of Ahmadinejad, who is not a cleric, will compete for a majority of the 290-seat parliament.
Khamenei's supporters, sharply critical of Ahmadinejad's economic policies, look set to win the vote as international
sanctions imposed over Tehran's disputed nuclear programme make life harder for ordinary Iranians.
"The 3,444 candidates running for parliamentary elections have started the campaigning by mainly handing out fliers and raising posters on Thursday," IRNA reported.
The streets of Tehran lacked the lively mood of an election. There were sporadic banners in some major squares and streets but most of them bore pictures of Khamenei, as both camps were trying to take advantage of his popularity to attract votes.
"Organising the country requires a capable parliament which can be achieved by active participation in elections," read a purple banner in central Tehran.
Ahmadinejad seeking ally
|Sporadic banners were seen in some areas [Reuters]
A strong showing by Ahmadinejad's camp would send a message of resilience to the ruling clerics, led by Khamenei, after a string of messy political feuds.
It also could rekindle Ahmadinejad's hopes of finding an ally into next year's presidential race to succeed him and possibly prolong his influence as an elder statesman. Ahmadinejad is in his second four-year term, the maximum under Iran's term limits.
On Thursday, Ahmadinejad's administration said in a statement that it would not support any particular group in the elections. His supporters, however, have formed a bloc called Paidari, or Resistance Front.
The main rival group, Motahed, or United Front, includes traditional conservatives with close links to Khamenei.
There are two other minor conservative groups - Istadegi, or Endurance Front, which is close to Mohsen Rezaei, a conservative rival of Ahmadinejad's in the 2009 presidential elections; and a newly formed conservative group called "The People's Voice," which includes several current legislators who are critical of Ahmadinejad.
All claim they have been loyal to Khamenei, who has a final say on all state matters.
Noticeably absent, however, is any political bloc drawing inspiration from the outlawed Green Movement, which led the outrage after Ahmadinejad's re-election, which protesters charged was rigged, and whose leaders are silenced under house arrest. The major reformist groups claim that basic requirements for free and fair elections have not been met.
In both domestic and foreign affairs, the vote is unlikely to change Iran's course, regardless of who wins.
The ruling establishment, determined to continue the country's nuclear research, has called for a high turnout, believing it will provide a boost to the government in its standoff with the West.
Iran has been under increasing pressure from the US and the European Union, which suspect the country is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran maintains it is conducting nuclear research for peaceful purposes.
More than 48 million Iranians are eligible to participate in next week's vote.