By Paul Hughes
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Some 550 candidates cleared to run in Iran's parliamentary election have pulled out because thousands of reformist candidates have been banned, the interior ministry was quoted as saying on Saturday.
Reformists have predicted Iran's February 20 parliamentary poll will be a "sham" and a "bloodless coup" because the 12-man Guardian Council, an unelected conservative group, has banned more than 2,500 of the 8,200 aspiring candidates, mainly reformists.
Those blocked include 80 members of the 290-seat parliament.
"Up until now 550 candidates have withdrawn from the election," said the reformist Yas-e No newspaper, quoting the interior ministry.
The 550 candidates were following in the steps of the country's largest reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), which had already said it would boycott the election. It was not immediately clear how many of them were members of the IIPF.
A conservative political group dismissed accusations the election had been rigged.
Members of the newly formed Alliance for the Advancement of Islamic Iran (AAII), which is putting forward candidates for Tehran's 30 parliamentary seats, defended the candidate bans.
"The disqualifications were carried out within the framework of our law," said AAII candidate Gholamali Hadadadel.
"Therefore, we don't think this is an unfair election," Hadadadel, who is leader of the minority conservative faction in the outgoing parliament, told a news conference.
Reformist allies of President Mohammad Khatami, who won a large majority in 2000 parliamentary elections, argue they will be unable to compete for over half of parliament's 290 seats.
Those barred include around 80 current legislators, many of whom were deemed to lack loyalty to Islam and the constitution.
Analysts say conservatives, who in contrast with reformists reject any watering down of the Islamic political system imposed after the 1979 Islamic revolution, stand to benefit from the candidate bans and reformist election boycotts.
Conservatives, who can count on a hard core of loyal support, will also likely profit from the expected low turnout among Iran's 46 million eligible voters, many of whom have grown disillusioned with Khatami's inability to overcome stiff hardline resistance to his reformist agenda.
Turnout plunged to just 11 percent in Tehran in city council elections last February, allowing conservatives to sweep reformists out of the council altogether -- a result which AAII members said was a model for next week's poll.
"The parliamentary vote is the second step after the city council elections that our society is taking," Hadadadel said.
Sitting beneath a campaign banner which read "Development is not only our dream, it's our program" AAII candidates said they would prioritize economic issues in the next parliament.
Reformists have been criticized by many Iranians for focusing too heavily on political and social reforms, which they were unable to implement, while living standards fell.
AAII candidate Ahmad Tavakoli, who stood against Khatami in 1997 elections, said his party was open to a restoration of ties with arch-enemy Washington, broken off in 1980, provided U.S. officials "change their dictatorial behavior toward Iran."