The weeklong campaigning for Iran’s parliamentary elections kicked off with more than 7,000 candidates vying for the 290 seats in the legislature, state TV reported on Thursday.
The February 21 elections are widely seen as a contest between hard-liners and conservatives after most pro-reform and moderate candidates were disqualified.
The vote will also be a test of the popularity of President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate who has struggled to deliver on promises to improve people's lives under crippling U.S. economic sanctions.
But experts say rising public dissatisfaction over Iran's faltering economy and the absence of a transparent and fair election process are likely to dampen voter turnout.
Rohani has criticized the Guardians Council, a hard-line body which vets all candidates, after it disqualified thousands of people who had registered to run, including 90 current lawmakers.
But the president used a speech marking the 41th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution earlier this week to urge Iranians “not to be passive” in the polls despite "possible complaints and criticism.”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also called for a high turnout, saying that voting was an act of patriotism at a time of heightened tensions with the United States.
“Someone may not like me personally, but if they love Iran, they must go to the ballot box," Khamenei said in a speech on February 5.
When officials announced gasoline rationing and price hikes in November, anti-government protests erupted in more than 100 Iranian cities and turned violent before security forces put them down.
Last month, the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane by Iran’s air defenses led to days of protests in Iranian cities, with demonstrators chanting slogans against Iran’s clerical leadership.
The plane disaster followed the killing of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's elite Quds Force, in a U.S. air strike in Baghdad in early January. In response, Tehran launched missile strikes on two bases hosting U.S. troops in Iraq.
Tensions have soared between Iran and the United States since Washington in 2018 pulled out of a nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and reimposed economic sanctions on Iran. Tehran has gradually stepped back from its own commitments under the 2015 deal and has said it no longer considers itself bound by the pact.
Experts predict Iran’s hard-liners will dominate the next legislature following elections in which reformists say 90 percent of their candidates have been barred from running.
In the 2016 vote, a bloc of reformists and moderate conservatives won 41 percent of the 290 parliamentary seats. Hard-liners won 29 percent and independents took 28 percent.
Among the high-profile candidates in the upcoming polls that are running are Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the conservative former mayor of Tehran, and Masud Pezeshkian, among the few reformist lawmakers permitted to run for reelection.
Conservative Ali Larijani, Iran’s powerful parliamentary speaker, and moderate Mohammad Reza Aref, who headed the reformist faction in parliament, have decided not to run.
Those barred from contesting the polls include Ali Motahari, an outspoken lawmaker and a political moderate, and Mahmud Sadeghi, the reformist politician who has represented Tehran since winning his seat in 2016.