Monday, November 4, 2013

Secular students hope to shake up AUB polls

[Originally posted at NOW]

Though support for independents may be growing, they are unlikely to threaten the major established parties on Tuesday.

The American University of Beirut (AUB) is set to hold its annual student elections Tuesday, during which undergraduates and graduates will elect representatives from all faculties to a pair of committees intended – at least in theory – to advance the interests of students within the broader university administration.

While overt affiliation with real Lebanese political parties is forbidden, it’s an open secret that most of the various “clubs” running candidates are de facto proxy parties, with the Youth Club representing the Future Movement, the Cultural Club of the South standing in for Hezbollah, and so on. As a result, student elections are often regarded as indicators of the prevailing political dynamics nationwide.

However, not all students see it that way, and indeed a minority of independents is seeking this year to convince their peers that there is something more at stake.

“We have taken for granted that student elections are a kind of survey of the political distribution in the country, and the class consciousness of students as an interest group is not really present,” says Jean Kassir, a final-year political studies student and president of the Secular Club, an independent, non-sectarian club that won a seat in the business faculty last year, and aims to win more on Tuesday. “So when you talk about a platform, or a vision for AUB, many students don’t care.”

Kassir, by contrast, clearly does care. A nephew of the late writer Samir Kassir, assassinated in the aftermath of Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Jean opposes March 8 but is evidently also unimpressed by March 14, and anyway insists that policies are what count when he meets NOW at the largely deserted AUB campus on Saturday afternoon.

“Our platform specifically targets tuition fees” – a controversial 6% hike was introduced this year – “as well as the issues of transparency in financial aid, transparency in AUB expenditures, and the idea of improving overall academic standards.” He speaks at length about questionable allocations of funds by the administration (“there is no culture of accountability at AUB”) and what he believes is the failure of the mainstream clubs to address any of the above.

“What are their priorities? These guys are really obsessed by the score they get in the elections and they don’t care about the essentials. The 6% increase in tuition fees is maybe nothing for them but I know people who really cannot afford it.”

And he believes the club’s message will resonate with voters – particularly graduates – on Tuesday. They have indeed already won a graduate seat in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) unopposed (“It’s known that political parties have no chance there”). Also working in their favor is a boycott of this year’s elections by their strongest independent rivals, No Frontiers. Even Bilal Derian, spokesperson for the Future-affiliated Youth Club, conceded to NOW that independents stood to gain this year: “People now are against all that’s going on in the country, and so are becoming more and more independent from political parties.” All in all, Kassir believes they can take all the FAS and Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) graduate seats, along with a few undergraduate seats across various faculties.

Nevertheless, the Secular Club is unlikely to significantly upset the March 14-8 duopoly, according to Makram Rabah, former vice-president of AUB’s University Student Faculty Committee, author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut 1967-1975, and an active alumnus of the Progressive Youth Organization (PYO), the unofficial affiliate of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).

“They’re not strong at all,” said Rabah of the Secular Club. “They might win a couple of seats, but since they’re not competing in the big ones – the vice-president, the treasurer, and so on – they’re not a challenge. They don’t have the manpower, the political leverage, or the funding.”

Indeed, Rabah believes the election is already effectively a foregone conclusion, given that the PYO – which, much like the PSP itself, enjoys a ‘kingmaker’ role, determining which of the two camps wins the day – has chosen once again to ally with March 8.

“Ever since the PYO decided a few years ago not to run on the March 14 ticket, March 14 has never won an AUB election. And there’s no reason for something unexpected from them this year.”

Derian, however, told NOW that the PYO’s alliance with March 8 actually gave Youth Club activists encouragement. “It made us work harder and boosted our people’s morales. We are working like bees this year.” Accordingly, Derian believes March 14 still has a “high chance” of winning the overall election. “Since last year, we decided to work for the students rather than for the political party we represent, and this allowed us to be powerful this year.”

Rabah, by contrast, says Tuesday will if anything see slight gains for March 8, given that they “are entering with a winning record,” and due to poor campaigning from March 14. “March 14 are too used to the pre-2007 victories, when they were so popular that everyone voted for them. Now, you have to actually go out and get the votes, which they’re not doing.” The PYO was in fact negotiating an alliance with March 14 earlier in the year, said both Rabah and Derian, but they fell out over seat allocations.

The Secular Club, then, may be destined to remain in the political wilderness for now. Yet it didn’t take long to find supporters on campus Saturday. The very first person to walk out of Main Gate following NOW’s interview with Kassir was Qasim, an undergraduate in the business school.

“I’m voting for them,” said Qasim. “Because they’re not affiliated with any political party.”

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