President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's name will be nowhere on Friday's ballots. But the voting for parliament seats will be very much about him and what's left of his final term in office.
The races for Iran's 290-member parliament boil down to a contest between conservative groups that have turned against each after crushing reformists in the upheavals that followed Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009 _ the last major voting in Iran.
One bloc seeks to further diminish Ahmadinejad's political stature; the other hopes to give him a rebound after being humbled in a lopsided power struggle with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The outcome will have little sway over Iran's major policies _ including its nuclear standoff with the West _ but could easily set the tone for Ahmadinejad's home stretch in office and the election in 2013 to pick his successor.
A strong showing for Ahmadinejad's backers would throw him a political lifeline and the chance to exert some influence over next year's election. Anything less would be interpreted as exiling Ahmadinejad into lame duck limbo and cementing ultra hard-line control over Iranian affairs.
That would virtually guarantee a hand-picked Khamenei loyalist as the next president and present a seamless front against Western efforts to curb Iran's uranium enrichment, which the U.S. and others fear could lead to development of nuclear weapons. Iran says it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
On many levels, the parliament election is a snapshot of Iran's pecking order after claims of vote rigging in June 2009 touched off Iran's worst domestic unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Liberals, reformists and youth groups that led the protests are virtually absent from the parliamentary ballots after relentless crackdowns and arrests. Conservatives _ now left without a unifying foe _ have splintered into various factions either backing or rejecting Ahmadinejad for daring to challenge Khamenei and the ruling clerics.
"Reformists are nowhere to be seen," said Maryam Khatibi, a Tehran-based political analyst.
Iran's parliament carries more powers than most elected bodies in the Middle East, including setting budgets and having influential advisory committees such as national security and foreign affairs. The current parliament is led by a former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.
But the chamber still lacks any direct ability to force policy decisions on Khamenei or the powerful forces under his control, including the Revolutionary Guard military establishment.
In years past, the parliamentary elections were the most important bellwether in the seesaw fights between hard-liners and groups that sought greater political freedoms and possible openings toward Washington. It's now a skirmish for high ground among the political survivors after nearly three years of crackdowns: An array of conservatives whose main policy views vary only slightly.
The real divide is Ahmadinejad _ another lesson in the high costs of running afoul with Iran's theocracy, particularly at a time when the leadership insists on rock-solid unity in its standoffs with the West.
In his second term, Ahmadinejad has gradually tried to extend his influence into the domain of the ruling clerics, such as foreign policy and intelligence gathering. Ahmadinejad is in his second four-year term, the maximum under Iran's term limits.
A serious rupture occurred in April when Ahmadinejad boycotted government meetings for more than a week after Khamenei ordered the reinstate the intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, who had been dismissed by Ahmadinejad.
In retaliation, dozens of Ahmadinejad aides were arrested or driven into the political margins. Hard-line media also began to smear Ahmadinejad's protege, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as head of a "deviant current" that sought to undermine Islamic rule.
The tensions grew so bitter that Khamenei suggested that Iran could someday abandon the presidency and return to a government selected from among parliament.
Hamid Reza Shokouhi, a political writer for pro-reform Mardomsalari daily, predicted Ahmadinejad's opponents should make significant gains. "And criticism will mount" toward Ahmadinejad from foes such as Larijani and his brother-in-law Ali Mottahari, who are both expected to coast to victories.
All major elections in Iran go through a winnowing process. A group controlled by the ruling clerics vets all candidates, blocking many considered linked to the opposition. This year, more than 3,400 candidates were cleared.
With no strong reformers in the running, Iran's leaders have pushed hard for a strong turnout to offset the expected opposition boycotts.
State radio and TV have carried nonstop appeals, describing voting as a religious duty. All of Tehran's daily newspapers Thursday had front-page remarks by Khamenei who said a big turnout would be a "slap at the face of arrogance" _ a reference to the U.S. and other Western powers.
In a rare move, a cultural center installed placards along major streets in Tehran with purported quotes from foreign-based Farsi-language radio stations and websites, including Voice of America, that suggested a high turnout is possible. Both VOA and other stations are blocked by authorities.
In 2008 and 2004, turnout for parliamentary elections were 57 percent and 51 percent, respectively. The semiofficial Fars news agency predicted turnout this year of more than 65 percent.
Preliminary results are expected early Saturday.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.