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On Friday, Iran will hold parliamentary elections. It's the country's first national election since the disputed and by many accounts fraudulent presidential poll in 2009.

Iran's reformists are not taking part. Their leaders have been under house arrest or in prison for years now, so the focus is on conservatives and on voter turnout, as NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: The presidential election in 2009 plunged Iran into turmoil. Millions came into the streets to protest the announcement that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term. The protesters believe the opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, now under house arrest, was the actual winner.

Riot police and street thugs attacked the demonstrators and, gradually, the police were able to suppress what turned out to be the greatest internal challenge to Iran's Islamic government in 30 years, all of which presents Iran's leadership with a problem, says Nader Hashemi, an Iran analyst at the University of Denver.

NADER HASHEMI: Elections in Iran have always been used as a way of sending a message to the outside world that we have internal popular support.

SHUSTER: That was not the message in 2009 and it appears Iran's leaders are uneasy about it this time around as well for several reasons, says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert who teaches at the University of Hawaii.

FARIDEH FARHI: With no significant competition from the reformist camp, the campaign itself has revealed deep concerns among this establishment about voter turnout and as well as the intense competition that is now going on among the various conservative forces, which collectively identify themselves as principalists.

SHUSTER: Nearly all reformist groups are urging voters to boycott the election. Skepticism runs deep that the turnout results will be accurately reported. Already, Iran's leaders, including Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader himself, declared they expect a 60 percent turnout.

The ayatollah has also issued a religious order that those who are eligible must vote. It's not clear whether that means they will be forced to vote. The real competition in this election is among the so-called principalists, the various conservative forces that have fought each other so fiercely for power.

Some see this election as fundamentally a fight between supporters of President Ahmadinejad and loyalists of the supreme leader. That's Nader Hashemi's take.

HASHEMI: There is an attempt to rally people around an Ahmadinejad faction and one of the things that the Ahmadinejad faction has been doing is to try and play off of the people's general antipathy toward clerical rule.

SHUSTER: Ahmadinejad's two presidential terms end next year, so gaining support in the new parliament is one way he could extend his influence beyond his time in office.

FARHI: I think he's lost that already.

SHUSTER: Farideh Farhi sees the battle of the principalists as far more complex than a contest between the ayatollah and the president.

FARHI: I think this is an election in which various wings of principalism - traditional, pragmatic and hard line - are trying to position themselves vis-a-vis each other. I seriously doubt any of them will come out of this election stronger since the process has, so far, led to even more splintering of the faction.

SHUSTER: And warns Nader Hashemi, don't forget the international context in which this election is taking place.

HASHEMI: The question of the nuclear program, the question of a possible foreign military strike, the question of Iran's collapsing economy as a result of the nuclear program and Western sanctions has sort of really cast a spell of, I think, despair and disillusionment over Iranian society, generally.

SHUSTER: Finally, there is the utter complexity of it. The Guardian Council, a body of 12 conservative clerics and jurists, has approved more than 3,400 candidates to run for the parliament's 290 seats. The council disqualified nearly 2,000 others. Needless to say, it's not easy to keep track of who the candidates are and what they stand for.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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