Municipal elections in Iran Friday will be a key test for a banned liberal dissident movement as well as reformists supporting President Mohammad Khatami, who have fallen into disarray.
Reformists swept the 1999 local polls, the first to be held in Iran since the Islamic revolution 20 years before, in a fresh political victory for Khatami.
A year later, reformists were dominating parliament and in 2001 the president was re-elected by a landslide, but since then the pro-reform drive has faltered against hardening opposition from conservatives who control all the other key institutions.
In Tehran the city council collapsed after months of infighting, forcing the interior ministry to take over the capital's administration, and on Friday the reformists will be putting up three separate lists of candidates here.
This could open the way to candidates from the Iran Freedom Movement (IFM), which was officially banned amid a crackdown in 2000 by the conservative judiciary which put many of its members on trial.
Eight of its 15 hopefuls in Tehran were given jail sentences after being found guilty of plotting against the Islamic regime, but are still free pending the hearing of an appeal.
As well as the capital, the IFM hopes to make inroads in Tabriz in the north, and Isfahan and Nain in the centre.
"We think we can get four or five people elected in Tehran," IFM secretary general Ebrahim Yazdi said.
"These elections are the fairest because no candidate has been rejected for political reasons," Yazdi said, though he regretted that the IFM had no newspapers with which to campaign.
The conservative courts have shut down dozens of pro-reform newspapers, but those remaining have given plenty of space to IFM candidates, who generally back Khatami's policies.
Unlike the general elections, municipal candidates are not vetted by the conservative Guardians Council, which has ruled out hundreds of would-be reformist members of parliament on the grounds they were not Islamic enough.
"In our country, democracy is a long road, and depends as much on the attitude of those in power as the activities of the opposition," Yazdi said.
"By taking part in the elections, we want to support the democratisation effort and the reforms undertaken in the past few years."
The conservatives for their part are keeping a low profile, standing as independents instead of on party lists.
But they are also calling on their supporters to boycott the polls or be careful who they vote for.
"Real believers will not take part in the vote," Assadollah Badamshian, a leader of the conservative Islamic Coalition Association, said this week.
He questioned the fairness of the elections, which are being run by Khatami's interior ministry and the parliament.
Badamshian's statement was greeted with a chorus of protest, with parliament speaker Mehdi Karubi saying, "all electors are good Muslims."
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an icon for conservatives, said Tuesday: "The activities of certain municipal councils have created problems for their towns.
"It's true that in some places the municipal councils have worked well... but in others certain political groups, tendencies and factions have engaged in such machinations that people no longer have confidence in them."
Khamenei warned voters not to be swayed by candidates' apparent abilities or record. "Even an experienced and competent man can be tempted to steal if he is not a man of faith," he said.
More than 210,000 candidates are standing for seats on the councils of 905 cities and 34,205 villages, including some 6,500 women, a 20 percent rise on 1999.
Among the 1,300 vying for the 15 seats in Tehran is the wife of Hashem Aghajari, an outspoken critic of clerical rule who was sentenced to death last year before an 11th-hour reprieve.
Turnout in 1999 was 64.41 percent across the country, but psephologists expect it to be lower this time amid voter disillusion with reformist failings.