TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's reformists are hoping to win their strongest presence in parliament since 2004 as hard-liners try to stave off a blow to their power in nationwide elections Friday, the first since Iran's landmark nuclear deal with the West.
Although Iran's authorities exercise great control over who can run, the elections will be seen as a gauge of how much reformists, riding in large part on the nuclear deal, can pursue a comeback into Iran's political structures after years in the cold under hard-liners' domination.
Reformists were largely pushed out of parliament by clerical authorities who barred their candidates from running in the previous three elections. The barring of the majority of reformists from the race this time as well means they are unlikely to win a majority. Parliament's powers are limited and ultimate authority rests with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Still, in Iran's complex politics, the parliament has influence and the elections are a critical barometer of public opinion that the ruling clerics cannot discount. A stronger reformist presence in parliament would give moderate President Hassan Rouhani support as he tries to repair the economy and move toward warmer ties with the United States and the West.
It has been a sometimes bitter campaign.
Reformist candidates have been hitting hard on the theme that the nuclear deal — which led to the lifting of most international sanctions on Iran — will improve the ailing economy and lead to a greater opening to the West. Hard-liners have been telling voters that reformists will weaken the country's resistance to its longtime enemies — and on the economic front, they've warned that Rouhani will reduce cash handouts to the poor to help compensate for higher food and fuel prices.
"This is a competition to confront a movement that, if it wins the house, will endanger the country's independence, dignity and security," prominent hard-liner Hossein Shariatmadari said, "a movement that has shown it favors putting Iran in the hands of arrogant and plundering powers."
Hard-liners have accused reformist rivals of being "British agents" — since Britain with its imperial past is often depicted in Iran as an even more devious enemy than the United States. One campaign poster showed a photo-shopped Queen Elizabeth II pointing to a reformist list urging Iranians to vote for them.
The hard-line camp is largely made up of loyalists of Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who during his two terms in office avidly stoked tensions with the U.S. and cracked down on internal dissidents.
In a bid to squeeze them out, reformists have allied with moderate conservatives, many of whom split with the hard-liners because of Ahmadinejad. While experts consider it unlikely that reformists could win a majority alone in the 290-seat parliament, some expect them to expand their presence from the fewer than 20 they currently hold and build a majority with the moderate conservatives, reducing the number of hard-liners.
All the elections take place under the overarching power of Iran's cleric-run hierarchy, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the top. A clerical-dominated body, the Guardian Council, has the right to vet candidates in election and it has barred thousands of candidates from this vote.
Reformists say that initially only 30 of their 3,000 would-be candidates were allowed to run. But the council later reversed the disqualifications of 1,500 candidates, including some reformists.
In the end, the reformist camp says it has about 200 candidates in the running — with a slogan of "hope, stability and economic prosperity."
"Our big goal is to stop extremists from controlling the next parliament," said prominent reformist political activist, Hossein Marashi.
At the same time as parliamentary elections, Iran is holding a vote Friday for the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the body that would eventually choose the successor to the 76-year-old Khamenei.
While disqualifications may have prevented any possibility of a reformist majority, a substantial bloc would mean a new shift in Iran's politics.
Reformists stormed to power with the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, followed by 2000 parliamentary elections that brought a reformist majority in parliament for the first time. The movement pressed for an easing of Islamic social restrictions, greater public voice in politics and freedom of expression and better ties to the international community.
But that hold was broken in the next election in 2004, when reformist candidates were largely barred from running. Ahmadinejad's election victory in 2005 sealed the movement's downfall. Reformists were all but shut out of politics for nearly a decade until Rouhani was elected.
Their return in significant numbers would reduce hard-liners' ability to block Rouhani's agenda of economic reforms in parliament. He can also try to push through some laws ensuring a greater degree of social and political freedoms.
Prominent political analyst Saeed Leilaz said voter turnout will be the key.
"If there is a high turnout Friday, hard-liners will have no chance to win. Their weak performance under Ahmadinejad has isolated them so that moderate conservatives broke with them," he said. Iran's Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said Thursday that a turnout of 70 percent is expected.
And for many voters the deciding factor could be the economy. Rouhani and the reformists are promising an economic windfall from the nuclear deal.
"The economy, I would say, trumps everything else," said Nancy W. Gallagher, the interim director at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, which has commissioned a series of public opinion polls in Iran since 2006.
"Youth unemployment is a particular concern as this is a highly educated society with a lot of young people," she said. "The youth are having a very hard time getting any job, let alone one that matches what they've been led to believe based on their credentials."
Associated Press Writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.