On Friday, Iran’s 48 million voters are being called on to decide their next parliament in elections whose turnout will be weighed to give an idea of support for the Islamic republic’s regime.
It will be the first nationwide poll since the 2009 disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which sparked months of opposition protests and a bloody crackdown by security forces.
This time, no protests are expected.
But voter turnout is seen as an indicator of how much of the country backs the conservatives who dominate the legislative chamber, with officials keen to present figures showing widespread support.
The last legislative elections, in 2008, saw turnout of 55.4 percent, according to interior ministry figures. Previous election turnouts have gone as high as 70 percent.
There were no reliable estimates as to how many voters would participate this time. But several officials and media have advanced a figure of 60 percent or more.
The country’s top leaders have urged as big a turnout as possible to show they enjoy wide popular support and legitimacy as they confront pressure from the West and Israel over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday that a massive turnout was needed “to show our determination to the enemy, so it understands it cannot resist our nation.”
Ahmadinejad was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency on Tuesday saying that voting was “a national duty,” and Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi told the same agency last week that a big turnout “guarantees the security” of Iran.
Vahidi added: “Without a doubt, the higher the participation, the stronger the national security.”
Iran’s voters will decide among the 3,444 candidates vying for the 290 seats in the parliament, known as the Majlis. All the candidates have been vetted by the Guardian Council for loyalty to the Islamic regime and Khamenei.
The election essentially boils down to a struggle between two conservative currents: those supporting Ahmadinejad, and those against him.
The outcome will help set the political scene for Iran’s 2013 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad, who has reached his term limit, will have to hand the reins over to a successor.
Very few reformists are on the voting lists for the parliamentary elections, and the main reformist parties are boycotting the poll.
Campaigning, launched just last week, has been extremely muted, and no debates have taken place over the main issues confronting voters -- the economic hardships they endure under high inflation and Western sanctions, and Iran’s increasing international isolation.
No particular extra security measures have been announced by authorities, but they remain alert to any sign of dissent.
Amnesty International said in a report published on Tuesday that repression of freedom of expression in Iran had been stepped up ahead of the elections.
“Anything from setting up a social group on the Internet, forming or joining a NGO, or expressing your opposition to the status quo can land you in prison,” Ann Harrison, interim deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program, said.