By Zahra Hosseinian
TEHRAN (Reuters) - A picture of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, glares down from an enormous election banner onto a busy street in central Tehran, ahead of a crucial parliamentary vote in the Islamic state this week.
Iran's first nationwide vote since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 has been marked by increased rhetoric extolling Islamic values as pressure mounts on the Iranian authorities - from at home and abroad.
Leading reformist candidates have refused to stand in Friday's vote, leaving rival hardline factions of the Supreme Leader and President Ahmadinejad to battle it out.
Ayatollah Khamenei's image and words dominate Tehran billboards. "Elections are a sign of a nation's livelihood and awareness," Khamenei states on one above one of the city's busy highways. The staid electioneering is in contrast to the colorful campaigns that have marked votes in recent years.
Even Ahmadinejad's supporters are co-opting Khamenei's image to attract voters, given the unpopularity of the president whose policies are blamed for Iran's economic crisis.
In the last 18 months, the withdrawal of food and fuel subsidies, coupled with the plummeting value of the Iranian currency, has hit hard the pockets of many Iranian families.
Iran has pressed ahead with its nuclear program despite increasing alarm among the United States and its allies. They believe Tehran is attempting to develop the skills to build nuclear weapons and have imposed sanctions targeting Iranian financial institutions and its oil industry.
The alliance of groups that back Khamenei have attacked Ahmadinejad's handling of the economy and look set to deliver a critical blow.
It is Khamenei's picture, not Ahmadinejad's, that greets visitors to the website of the Supporters of the Islamic Government Front, the main party representing Ahmadinejad's allies.
"Ahmadinejad's allies are momentarily putting aside their differences with the (supreme) leader only for the sake of more votes," said a political analyst in Tehran who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They want to create an image that suggests the two men are very close."
The tensions between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad surfaced last year when the president tried to sack his intelligence minister.
After boycotting his own office for several days in protest, the president returned to work. Since then, those loyal to Khamenei have used every opportunity to undermine the president, accusing him of challenging the supreme leader's authority and being under the spell of a "deviant current" that has attempted to dilute the Islamic nature of Iran's government.
In recent years, the colorful banners, face-painting and patriotic campaigning promising a brighter, better future had become the main currency in attracting voters, replacing the defensive battle cries favored in the years immediately after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Campaigns appealing to national pride had replaced religious ideology, notably after the election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Iranians knew for sure that times were changing when the former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- running for parliament in 2000 -- appeared in some campaign advertisements without his turban.
But facing hostility from abroad, Iran is now moving back in the opposite direction.
Israel has made veiled threats to carry out pre-emptive strikes on Iran's nuclear sites and the United States has not ruled out military action. In the election campaign, Islam and the Iranian Revolution are once again the most important themes.
A banner in Tehran's downtown Valiasr street, put up by the municipality, quotes Khamenei as saying: "The more lively the elections, the greater the Iranian nation's grandeur in the eyes of the enemies."
A billboard promoting the pro-Khamenei United Principalists' Front depicts images of the late Ayatollah and founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, and the current supreme leader with a slogan promising to "build a house suitable for Iranian people."
During a sermon at Friday prayers this week, the hardline cleric Ahmad Khatami urged candidates not to "misuse" Khamenei's popularity in their campaigns and focus instead on their plans to improve the lives of ordinary people.
There are signs the turnout in major cities could be low, reflecting the frustration and anger of many voters over their mounting economic problems. Analysts believe turnout will be highest in small towns and villages.
"There is no election this time," said a second Tehran-based analyst who asked not to be named. "This is the coldest election ever. There is no competition and this election is not about the voters. It is about those counting the votes."
"Although the Iranian nation is unpredictable, there is a high chance that many people in large cities will stay away from the vote."
Officials have predicted a turnout of around 60 percent. Yet there is concern the polls have failed to engage the public. Member of Parliament Masoud Pezeshkian said more had to be done to get voters' attention.
"Universities and mosques should become a debating ground between candidates to create more excitement over the vote," the Iranian Student News Agency quoted him as saying.
For reformist supporters, there may as well be no election at all. The main pro-reform groups have not submitted a unified list of candidates, saying that their demands for a "free and fair" election were not met. Opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi are under house arrest and the main reformist parties have been banned since 2009.
"I will not cast my vote," said 53-year-old Fakhri Hooshmandi in Tehran. "Even if I wanted to, I wouldn't know who to vote for. There are not many election posters in the streets."
Yet there are signs that regular messages broadcast by state media, urging Iranians to cast their vote and defy the country's "enemies," are having an effect.
"I'm still not certain about voting," said 46-year-old Ali, a wealthy businessman educated in the United States. "I don't believe my vote would really count but if our abstention encourages Iran's enemies to wage a war, then I will vote but for someone who's critical of Ahmadinejad."
(Writing by Zahra Hosseinian, Editing by Marcus George and Rosalind Russell)