More than 500 liberal-leaning candidates have withdrawn from legislative elections next week, the Interior Ministry said Saturday, apparently to protest the disqualification of thousands of reformist contenders by Iran's hard-line clerics.

The candidates, who are not affiliated with any party, join a boycott by reformist parties of the Friday elections in which nearly all of the 5,600 candidates are hard-liners certain to win amid expected low-voter turnout.

"So far, 550 candidates have withdrawn from the elections," the Islamic nation's ministry said in a statement posted on its Web site, without giving a reason for the withdrawals.

The election furor — Iran's worst political crisis in decades — began when the clerics of the Guardian Council (search) banned more than 2,400 candidates, nearly of them supporters of efforts to expand Western-style democracy and loosen strict interpretations of Islamic codes in areas such as social activities and the media.

The council, lead by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search), reinstated about 1,100 candidates after sit-ins and protests by liberal politicians and backers. The rest remained blackballed — all leading reformists, including 80 sitting lawmakers.

That left only minor liberal contenders on the ballot, and many of them have since dropped out.

"I was approved on the basis of the (supreme) leader's order and not according to defined legal procedure," said former candidate Aboulfazl Raouf (search). "I see this against my dignity as an Iranian citizen."

Another candidate who dropped out was Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, a former interior minister and hard-liner-turned-reformer. Mohtashamipour belongs to the Militant Clerics Association, the only reformist clerical party running in the elections. He could not be reached for comment Saturday.

In the absence of any rivals, conservatives are expected to easily win. The biggest challenge will likely be persuading apathetic and disillusioned citizens to vote in an election seen as flawed and undemocratic.

A government survey predicted that only about 30 percent of 46 million eligible voters would take part in the polls.

In 2000, parliament elections drew more than 67 percent of voters when reformers took control of the 290-seat chamber for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

On Friday, the ayatollah urged a high turnout in the elections to give "a slap in the face" to pro-reform groups and others calling for a boycott.

A sharp drop in voter turnout would be widely interpreted as a powerful sign of support for reformers.

Those barred from the vote include Mohammad Reza Khatami, leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran's largest reformist party, which leads the boycott. Khatami, a younger brother of President Mohammad Khatami, won the biggest number of votes in Tehran in 2000.

A reluctant President Khatami gave in to the ayatollah's order last week to hold elections but said the vote would be unfair and give people little motivation to participate.