Voters in Iran go to the polls on Friday for a parliamentary election seen mainly as a contest between competing conservative factions, after authorities barred the majority of reformist candidates from running.  VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has this preview from our Middle East Bureau in Cairo.

The conservatives who have dominated Iran's parliament since 2004 are expected to tighten their hold, with few reformist candidates even allowed on the ballot.

The election is largely a contest between two rival conservative factions, one more closely allied to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the other favoring a more pragmatic approach to issues such as Iran's dealings with the West over its nuclear program.

"This is I think the worst election Iran has ever seen since the beginning of the Islamic Republic," said Ali Nourizadeh, an Iranian journalist and political commentator based in London.

During pre-election vetting of candidates, hundreds of people were disqualified, including most of the candidates from the so-called reformist camp.  They tend to favor improved relations with the West and more freedom in Iran.

"I was just looking at the list of nominees, and as I said you don't see any prominent reformists," he added.  "The so-called rivalry may be among the so-called fundamentalists - progressive fundamentalists and conservative fundamentalists - and they are both the same. "

The virtual disappearance from the ballots of well-known reformers means voters who want to support the reformist agenda could end up voting for people they have barely heard of.  On the other hand, two rival camps have emerged among the conservative movement that brought President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power three years ago.

One camp, known as the United Front, includes candidates allied with the president, while the other, called the Broad or Inclusive Coalition, includes some of his more pragmatic conservative rivals, including former chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani.

Tight restrictions on the campaigns have marked the run-up to the election.

"Based on the statement issued by the Supreme National Security Council to media, there are some issues which you should not discuss - issues like the Iranian atomic/nuclear file, issues like inflation, issues like Iran's relations with Iraq, with the United States," Nourizadeh explained.

The result is a campaign where important issues have been barely discussed, and where local or domestic matters, such as pollution have been the focus.

Professor Amal Hamada is an Iran specialist in the political science department at Cairo University.  On her last visit to Iran a few months ago, she said it was clear the major issues remain on everyone's mind.

"The issue was economics, no question about it," she noted.

With high inflation and unemployment rates, the economy has become one of the issues fueling division in the conservative camp, along with differences over the tactics of President Ahmadinejad, including the confrontation with the West over the country's uranium enrichment program.

"Absolutely, I have no doubt that his support is going to go down and down, because the people are not happy. Even solid supporters of Ahmadinejad [are] criticizing his economic programs and his ideas, which some consider disastrous," Nourizadeh added.

With the exclusion of so many reformist candidates, there are reports of widespread voter apathy and indications that many supporters of the reformists could stay away from the polls.  At the same time, the government and religious leaders have been strongly encouraging people to vote, saying it is their Islamic duty.

Hamada says it is hard to predict what the voter turnout might look like.

"Because you know, the conservatives have better ability to mobilize people on the day of elections, so this is what they have been counting on all the time," she added.  "You can't really tell.  By tomorrow you could be surprised by the [turnout] numbers, or be surprised by no one showing."

There are 290 seats in Iran's parliament, and the voting process can be complicated, with each person casting multiple votes.  Some areas will use electronic voting machines for the first time. Final results are not expected for several days.