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Explainer: Iran's Parliamentary Elections

An Iranian man looks at election posters during a week of campaigning ahead of a parliamentary poll on March 2
As Iran's Islamic republic gears up for its ninth parliamentary elections on March 2, RFE/RL looks at the key issues that are expected to dominate proceedings as well as the personalities who should feature prominently in the upcoming poll.

Who is *NOT* running?

More than 3,400 candidates across Iran are competing for the 290 seats in Iran's majlis, or parliament. But who is *not* running is as important as who is.

*Not* running are the reformists who led the Green Movement -- the mass popular protests over President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009. They are boycotting the election, with key leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi remaining under house arrest following their call last year for an opposition rally that attracted tens of thousands of protestors.

Other reformists who tried to run were ruled out in a preelection vetting process by the hard-line Guardians Council. The council's chief, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, said that reformists, whom he labeled traitors, "need not participate."

Only a few small reformist groupings, which currently hold seats in the Majlis, will compete. There may also be some reformist-minded candidates who run without revealing their sympathies.

"The reformists' ideas are out there and some people who are not running under the flag of the reformists nevertheless sympathize with their basic ideology [of greater democracy, rule of law, and personal freedom]," says Shireen Hunter, an Iran specialist at Washington's Georgetown University.

Who *IS* running?

With the Green Movement sidelined, the election will be a duel between two camps of conservatives.

One grouping comprises loyalists of Ahmadinejad, the populist president whose term ends in 2013. His camp wants to stack the parliament so that it can hold on to power after he leaves office.

The other camp is the Islamic republic's traditionalist establishment, whose dominance of Iran's government institutions and economy has been challenged by Ahmadinejad.

Both camps pledge allegiance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But they differ over the extent of power the president and parliament should have in theocratic Iran.

"Nobody openly challenges Khamenei's position," says Hunter. "It is only the extent of his powers and the extent to which parliament, even before making any decision, should ask to see what are Khamenei's preferences."

Conservatives differ over economic issues, too. Ahmadinejad's policy of touring the provinces and handing out cash to fix problems wins him support from the masses but angers economic planners. It also clashes with vested interests.

What will the election results tell us?

Some 48 million people are eligible to vote in the election. How many of them turn out will be a test of how much citizens still believe in the Islamic republic's system after the Green Movement's outpouring of frustration in 2009 and 2010.

Officials and the media have stressed the importance of a high turnout, saying it will bode well for Iran's image abroad and strengthen its power in the international arena.

The election could also help tell which camp among Iran's divided conservatives will win the next presidential election: the allies or opponents of Ahmadinejad.

Will the election be fair?

The parliamentary election is the first since Ahmadinejad won reelection in a 2009 poll that reformists say was riddled with fraud.

This time it is not just reformists who think the election might not be fair. Conservative rivals of the president worry he will use the powers of his office and the Interior Ministry, which administers the election, to swing the results.

"Ironically, it is now conservatives rather than the reformists who are warning against government interference in the elections," says Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University in Virginia.

What does the election mean for the Iran nuclear dispute?

Iran's foreign policy is not an area of disagreement among conservatives and will not change with a new parliament. The government is committed to its nuclear program, which Western nations say pursues nuclear weapons but which Tehran says is for generating energy.