TEHRAN (AP) — More than 3,400 candidates across Iran kicked off their campaigns for this week’s parliamentary elections, which mark the first test of popularity for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since his disputed 2009 re-election.

The March 2 vote will be especially hard fought between Ahmadinejad’s supporters and opponents within the conservative camp, and should — for a time at least — shift attention from Iran’s dispute with the West over its nuclear program back to the political rivalry between the president and his adversaries within the ruling system.

“The election is a scale to measure the weight of both Ahmadinejad and his conservative opponents,” said Amir Mohebian, a political analyst in Tehran.

A strong showing by Ahmadinejad’s camp would send a message of resilience to the ruling clerics, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after a string of messy political feuds. It also could rekindle Ahmadinejad’s hopes of getting an ally into next year’s presidential race to succeed him and possibly prolong his influence as an elder statesman. Ahmadinejad is in his second four-year term, the maximum under Iran’s term limits.

On Thursday, Ahmadinejad’s administration said in a statement that it would not support any particular group in the elections. His supporters, however, have formed a bloc called Paidari, or Resistance Front.

The main rival group, Motahed, or United Front, includes traditional conservatives with close links to Khamenei.

There are two other minor conservative groups — Istadegi, or Endurance Front, which is close to Mohsen Rezaei, a conservative rival of Ahmadinejad’s in the 2009 presidential elections; and a newly formed conservative group called “The People’s Voice,” which includes several current lawmakers who are critical of Ahmadinejad.

All claim they have been loyal to Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters.

Noticeably absent, however, is any political bloc drawing inspiration from the outlawed Green Movement, which led the outrage after Ahmadinejad’s re-election, which protesters charged was rigged, and whose leaders are silenced under house arrest. The major reformist groups claim that basic requirements for free and fair elections have not been met.

With the election campaign just beginning and the parties not yet announcing their platforms, many voters said they haven’t made up their minds.

“I have not decided yet on the groups, but I will not vote for supporters of Ahmadinejad, ” said Heidar Alavi, a social science student. “They failed to fulfill their promises in every field. Many people complain about their difficult lives because of unemployment and inflation.”

Iran has been suffering from two-digit unemployment and inflation rates.

Another student, Abbas Mozafari said he was considering skipping the vote because reformist groups are not taking part.

“The government dealt with them badly,” he said. “Many of them are still in jail simply because they oppose the result of the re-election” of Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Akbar Afshari, a watchman in a private company and father of three has a different point of view, “Ahmadinejad is the sole president who promised to pay people and he did.”

Since late 2010, government has paid about $40 to every Iranian after it cut part of energy and food subsidies. It has promised additional payments soon.

In both domestic and foreign affairs, the vote is unlikely to change Iran’s course, regardless of who wins.

The ruling establishment, determined to continue the country’s disputed nuclear program, has called for a high turnout, believing it will provide a boost to the government in its standoff with the West. Iran has been under increasing pressure by the West that suspects the nuclear program has aimed at weapon, a charge Iran denies.

“If the turnout is high, it can lessen pressures from the sanctions and send this message to the world that the government enjoys people’s support,” Mohebian said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.