TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian students, who spearheaded a reform movement blunted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, doubt that voting for a new parliament on Friday can promote real change.
Yasaman Nili, 23, who backed moderate former president Mohammad Khatami in previous elections, says she will vote from a sense of civic duty, not because she finds any of the contenders for the 290-seat parliament inspiring.
"I don't have a favorite candidate whom I know would change things for the better," the social science student told Reuters at her apartment in wealthy north Tehran.
"At the same time, things won't improve if everyone draws back from voting. If you decide to be indifferent, you have no right to object to problems," said Nili, who studies at Tehran's Alameh Tabatabai university.
The March 14 election will show whether Ahmadinejad's popularity has waned since he won power on promises of sharing Iran's oil wealth more fairly.
Ahmadinejad, criticized for his handling of an economy awash with petrodollars but struggling with double-digit inflation, has been accused of introducing tighter social restrictions and a crackdown on reformist students.
In the late 1990s, students formed a bastion of support for the social and political reforms promoted by Khatami but many students became disillusioned as reforms failed to materialize.
Moderates trying to make a comeback in next Friday's election complain that the odds are stacked against them because a hardline vetting body has barred some of their candidates.
Sitting on a sunny bench at Tehran University campus, graphics student Rezvan Talebzadeh said she would vote but doubted candidates would fulfil their campaign promises.
"I don't like any of the hopefuls, but I don't believe in being indifferent to what happens in my country," she said.
Like many students in the Islamic state, where over half the population of 70 million is aged under 30, Talebzadeh cares more how lawmakers perform than how they are labeled.
"It's not important whether reformists or conservatives win. I will vote if I find a candidate with good plans, regardless of what party he belongs to," she said.
Parliament does not decide policy on major issues such as Iran's nuclear row with the West, but setbacks for Ahmadinejad's supporters in the assembly would signal disillusionment with his hardline agenda and could affect his prospects for re-election as president in 2009.
Maryam, an art student swathed in a black chador, did not think that casting her ballot would help combat the economic hardships she believes are suffocating personal freedom.
"My votes in the past did not change anything. We still suffer from cultural poverty," she said, making clear she felt people should opt for Islamic dress out of conviction.
"As time goes by, the economic conditions improve everywhere in the world except here."
Other students and activists echoed this loss of hope.
In 1999, students calling for change were at the centre of violent protests over the closure of a pro-reform newspaper, the worst unrest since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But activists say they lost hope, and became less active, after the Khatami era fell short of pledges to push through social and political change.
"The government is trying to encourage students to vote but there is little motive for them," said student activist Nariman Mostafavi. "Under Khatami ... many promises were never carried out. Students have lost their passion."
Iran's pro-democracy students have paid a heavy price in recent years and some of their leaders have fled the country or been put in jail by the clerical establishment.
Some, like a Tehran University student who gave his name only as Hadi, have no intention of voting.
"I don't know any of the candidates and I don't feel any need to get to know them," he said, lighting a cigarette.
"I've decided not to vote this time around. The promise of change in Iran is only an illusion."
Law student Reza Alavi said Ahmadinejad should be given more time to make his mark.
"Khatami ruled for eight years and he was given a chance to go all the way through with his policies. This government has done many good things for Iran. I will vote for Ahmadinejad to give him a fair chance."
Graduate student Mohsen, who also declined to give his family name, said it was worth voting if only to stave off more economic, social and political curbs.
"Students should vote. If I don't vote, others will and their choice could be much different from the kind of lawmakers I want to see in parliament," he said.
"I don't want to lose what little freedom we have won over the years and witness more hardships."
Student activist Ali Nikounesbati said some students would decide what to do based on this week's campaigning.
"Students have made no move to boycott the election, but the general atmosphere is cold," he said.
Editing by Alistair Lyon and Clar Ni Chonghaile