Boycott threat as Iran poll opens
A clergyman casts his vote on Friday.
Nearly half of the Iranian parliament is critical of general elections proceedings despite the belief that they will not be free or fair.
TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Polling is under way in Iran for disputed parliamentary elections predicted to give more control of the Islamic nation to conservative religious hardliners.
Friday's election, overshadowed by a ban on most reform candidates and a crackdown on pro-reform media, is poised to bring about one of the biggest upsets in Iranian politics since reformists promising radical change were swept into office seven years ago.
It also comes in the wake of a train explosion Wednesday that claimed hundreds of lives -- the latest disaster to hit the Mideast nation of around 70 million.
Over 40 million Iranians are entitled to take part in the vote to elect 290 deputies, but banned reformists have promised a boycott and the turnout is expected to be low, especially among Iran's disillusioned youth, many of whom are unemployed.
In efforts to counter this, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for a massive turnout to slap the Islamic republic's "enemies" in the face.
The election contrasts markedly with polls four years ago. Then, walls were plastered with pictures and campaign posters as the parliamentary elections of 2000 captivated a country that believed it was cementing a solid agenda of reform. Reformist candidates swept to power.
Now the walls are almost bare and observers say hopes embodied by President Mohammed Khatami's 1997 landslide win failed to materialize and his efforts to free up the country's restrictive political and social agenda were rebuffed by hardline conservative clergymen, who retained the real power.
Last month, the Guardian Council -- which holds a blanket political veto -- sparked Iran's most serious political crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution by barring 4,000 reformist parliamentary candidates, including the president's own brother and 80 present MPs.
The reformists accused the hardliners of staging a parliamentary coup, and criticized the country's supreme leader for allowing the elections to go ahead despite the widespread belief that they will not be free or fair.
"Is not your insistence on holding the elections as scheduled anything but putting your seal of approval on the illegal actions of the Guardian Council?" they asked supreme leader Khamenei in a six-page open letter.
In the letter, read at a gathering of the protesting members of parliament this week, the reformists said they were deeply concerned about the future of the country.
"A parliament elected in a sham election will not be able to defend the rights of the people or the security of the country," it said.
However, these accusations are rebutted by one group of hardliners running in Friday's election, the Coalition of Developers of Islamic Iran.
Accusations of poor human rights, they said, were the creation of the enemies of Iran; criticism of the election process by the European Parliament an ugly domineering interference in Iran's internal affairs.
But some analysts and intellectuals have started to openly complain that Iran is becoming a religious dictatorship, little different from the monarchy they deposed 25 years ago.
Many are openly criticizing Khamenei and are disillusioned with his failures, calling on him to act on his frequent promises to resign.
However, CNN's Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour said it was notable that these criticisms are being voiced in public and certain social restrictions, such as on women's clothing, have been relaxed in recent years.
But these small but hard-won liberties are now under threat. The Coalition of Developers, for example, says a ban on the use of satellite television, a popular pastime in Iran, must be enforced to guard against corruption of Islamic values and national security.
Amanpour added that conservatives, looking to regain full political control, are now reported to be positioning a cleric, Hassan Rowhani, to win presidential elections scheduled for next year.
Rowhani was Iran's pointman for crucial nuclear negotiations with the West last autumn.
The resulting agreement for intrusive inspections was widely hailed, but even that may develop into a new crisis after international inspectors discovered uranium enrichment centrifuge parts that are much more sophisticated than the type Tehran has admitted to having. (Full story)
-- CNN Correspondents Christiane Amanpour, Kasra Naji and Matthew Chance contributed to this report