BEIRUT: The March 8-supported “We Will” coalition romped to victory over rivals “Students at Work” Wednesday in the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) Student Representative Committee (SRC) elections.
The result represented a remarkable 12-month downturn in fortunes for the group supported by March 14, who took the majority of SRC seats last year.
Voter turnout, however, was far lower than in previous elections, something the coordinator of student affairs Hiba Hamadeh attributed to the vote’s close proximity to the November holiday period.
“The holidays are probably a big reason [for low voter turnout],” Hamadeh told The Daily Star.
She added that campus was far more restrained than in previous elections.
“It depends on the students, but even the campaigns have been calmer [than previous years]. There are definitely more independent candidates than last year,” Hamadeh said.
AUB Provost Ahmad Dallal praised the increased amount of independent candidates. “I wish there were less sectarian slogans, but otherwise it was a good competition and I think [the vote] was more civilized than usual.
There were more independents who ran for election [than in previous years],” he told The Daily Star. “Of course, people are free to have their political views but my hope is that candidates will run on student, not political agendas. There is enough politics in the country.”
Lebanese Association for Democratic Election Coordinator at AUB Tamim Bou Karroum described the vote as “very well-organized.” With 264 candidates for 109 positions, the announcement of each victor was met alternatively by cheers and boos, rival blocs separated by metal barriers amid heavy security.
Although student politics still reflects wider factionalism, the mood on campus was one more of conviviality than conflict. No security incidents, which have marred previous student votes, were recorded Wednesday.
All the talk in the run up to voting had been of a schism in the March 8 camp; Hizbullah and Free Patriotic Movement supporters had formed their own “Order out of Chaos” bloc to rival the “We Will” group of Amal Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party.
A deal was struck at the eleventh hour between camps and the unified “We Will” front benefited from unanimous opposition support, winning majorities in medicine, engineering and architecture and arts and sciences faculties.
Abeer Lotfy, a senior “We Will” arts and sciences candidate attributed her bloc’s surprise victory to a more informed electorate.
“There is now an alliance between the parties and they are stronger than the other side,” she said. “They had some conflicts, but everything will now be fine. The student body is becoming more active and that is a good thing.” Tracy Helou, a senior victor with “Students at Work,” said her bloc was politically marginalized throughout the vote.
“We are not satisfied with the result. We are just two allies; they have all the other parties against us. I think people vote more for political reasons than for anything else,” she said.
The “Students at Work” spent upward of $15,000 on its campaign, its candidates sporting yellow scarves and fluorescent vests. Ultimately, the outfits – though noticeable – couldn’t avert defeat.
Christel Ghandour, a sophomore winner with “We Will” said that students voted on policy, not personality.
“I did not expect to win at all. It shows you can’t win with just a bunch of shiny jackets. There are two types of candidates, those who are stupid and those who have something to say,” she said.
Amid politicized voting, some students cast their ballot based on student policy alone.
Muhieddine Itani, a sophomore, said he supported the coalition that successfully led the fight earlier this year against a rise in tuition fees.
“I voted for “Students at Work” because they believe in the things that I believe in,” he said. “They are working against rising tuition fees. They were the ones who stopped that rise.” More than 35 candidates opted to run for positions independent of political affiliation.
Fouad Baddou, a senior running by himself, said he hoped the increase of independent candidates prefigured a shift away from partisanship in student politics. “Year after year of this political system, we are slowly chipping away at a system which only gives students token representation,” he said.
He admitted he had been courted by political candidates “hating each other to a point that they will finish their lists with me.”
“Several have approached me asking to exchange votes. The point of running as an independent is I can’t ask people to vote for someone else,” he added.
Muhammed Ghotmeh, a supporter of the independent “Alternative Front” bloc, said younger students didn’t fully understand why they were voting.
“They don’t think about what they are voting for. We [the independents] are working on encouraging critical thinking, they are just following leaders blindly at the moment,” he said. – With additional reporting by Alexandra Taylor