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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 February, 2004, 16:42 GMT
Iran poll campaign ends with row
Leafleting in Tehran
There has been little sign of public interest in the elections
Campaigning for Iran's elections ends at midnight on Wednesday, amid warnings from reformists that Friday's polls will be poorly attended and unfair.

Correspondents in Tehran say many voters have been discouraged by a ban on some 2,500 reform-minded candidates.

The Council of Guardians - a powerful group of clerics opposed to reforms in the Islamic republic - issued the ban.

With many people expected to ignore the polls, analysts predict a victory for religious conservatives on Friday.

A government survey suggests the turn-out will be about 30% nationwide, but could fall as low as 10% in the large cities.

Conservatives say the incumbent administration has only itself to blame for voter apathy.

According to the hardline daily, Jomhuri-ye Eslami, the government led by reformist President Mohammad Khatami has squandered its term "creating commotion, tension and despair".

But Mr Khatami's supporters argue he has been unable to deliver on the promise of liberalising Iran's society and economy because of the intransigence of the powerful conservative clergy.

Text protests

On the last day of campaigning, observers say posters belonging to the reformist parties are scarcely visible on Tehran's streets.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Amongst many liberals, underground protest has replaced overt electioneering.

Countless Iranian internet sites have sprung up, criticising the authorities' clampdown on reformists.

Mobile phone text messages have become another means of communicating dissent.

According to Reuters news agency, one widely-circulated message reads: "The ballot boxes of Friday are the coffins of freedom. We will not take part in the funeral of freedom."

Even amongst the students - historically at the vanguard of reform efforts in Iran - the mood is said to be muted.

With many of the candidates they backed barred from the contest, many believe their best hopes now rest with a boycott.

They are banking on a very low turn-out on Friday to support their claim that the conservatives lack a popular mandate.

Khatami's woes

However, President Khatami has warned that poor attendance at Friday's polls will play into the conservatives' hands.

Electoral defeat for the reformists could neuter Mr Khatami's powers and effectively reverse the gains made by the reformists in elections in 2000.

The Council of Guardians toned down an original ban - which would have affected almost half of the 8,200 would-be parliamentarians - under pressure from Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Nonetheless, a further 550 candidates, who had been deemed suitable to stand, later stood down in protest at the ban on the others.

Observers say many of Mr Khatami's supporters are disappointed he did not disavow the elections altogether.



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