A-Jad Goes Nuclear
A-Jad Goes NuclearReuters

Polls have opened in Iran's parliamentary elections, the first major voting since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009.

More than 3,400 candidates are competing for the 290 seats in the legislative body.

The vote is widely regarded as a political battleground for competing conservative factions in the absence of major reformist parties, who lost power over the 2009 post-election riots.

However, following the crackdowns, mass arrests, executions, and reports of systemic rape and torture by security forces following the 2009 protests, turnout is expected to be low and the vote isn't expected to change Iran's course.

The real race is between the so-called principalists, the conservative faction loyal to the Islamic establishment, and the wing close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The establishment blames the Ahmadinejad wing for poor economic policies and for having distanced itself from the Islamic system with nationalistic slogans, which could well render Ahmadinejad a lame duck for the rest of his presidency.

Ultimate power remains in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who'se influence is so deep that some commentators have referred to Iran as being a single party system with the party being Khamenei himself.

Ahmadinejad's inner circle has angered Khamenei and other senior Shiite clerics for promoting a "deviant current" that they see as threatening to those principles and to their own dominance.

Khamenei last year referred to Ahmadinejad as the leader of a "deviant movement" after the Iranian president reportedly said he believed the 12th Imam - the final Imam and final savior of mankind - would reveal himself on June 5.

While some 85% of Iranian Shiite Muslims are "twelvers" – adherents of the 12th Imam doctrine – most, including Khameini, object to ascribing a specific date to the event and instead maintain the 12th Imam is "occluded".

He and his followers have also accused Ahmadinejad and his followers of "tainting" Islam with Iranian nationalism.

The struggle between master and student began early in 2011 when Ahmadinejad attempted to sack powerful intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, a move Khamenei blocked. That provoked Ahmadinejad into a bizarre 11-day refusal to appear in public or carry out any duties.

Although Ahmadinejad publicly backed down in the confrontation with Khamenei, it emboldened his hardliner rivals in parliament who are expected to grill the president in the near future. .

They say his cuts in food and fuel subsidies, replaced with direct monthly stipends of around $38 per person, have fuelled inflation. Iran's inflation is officially 20 percent, but some economists estimate it is closer to 50 percent.

Ahmadinejad's government has been also hit by fraud allegations, including $2.6 billion of state funds that were illegally diverted. Dozens have been arrested in the scandal, which was disclosed with Khamenei's approval. The president denies any government wrongdoing.

The 56-year-old Ahmadinejad may have hoped to secure the election of a protégé to succeed him in 2013, but that would require a revival of his drooping political fortunes.

However, Ahmadinejad, an engineer and former Revolutionary Guard officer, has upset predictions before. A political unknown prior to 2003, he defeated Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful former president, in the 2005 presidential vote.

Polling stations are set to close by 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, but voting could be extended by up to four hours.