BEIRUT: The March 14-affiliated Students at Work coalition emerged as winners Tuesday in the student government elections at the American University of Beirut, defeating their rivals by a narrow margin.
This year’s polls were notable as AUB utilized electronic voting machines, meaning results were announced hours earlier than in years past, when paper ballots were used.
“Everything went smoothly,” said Student Affairs Dean Talal Nizameddin. “We overcame a lot of challenges and succeeded.”
Nizameddin thanked all the students and people involved for their contribution to the electoral process.
Student government elections are often labeled as a microcosm of Lebanese national politics. This was apparent in 2014 – a year in which Parliament extended its term for the second time running – as student elections at St. Joseph University and Notre Dame University were suspended. While politics at AUB aren’t a direct reflection of national politics considering the majority of students come from middle to upper economic class backgrounds, political observers often view the results as a reflection of the national Lebanese sentiment.
One way in which these student elections may act as a crystal ball into national politics is that this year the Progressive Socialist Party ran with the March 14-aligned Students at Work coalition. The alliance helped Students at Work come away as the winners in the University Student Faculty Committee (the student government) by winning eight seats out of a total of 18. Student Services, aligned with March 8, came second with six seats, while the independent and secular group Campus Choice came third, but nonetheless made a historic showing, gaining a record number of four seats that surprised the entire campus.
“It was a big surprise,” Nour Hijazi, a winner in Tuesday’s vote for Campus Choice said about her party’s strong showing. “The fact that we did so well, no one expected it.”
Results for the Student Representative Committee, which acts as a sort of parliament for AUB, saw Student Services and Campus Choice make strong showings, winning large numbers of seats while Students at Work weren’t as successful.
“March 14 usually loses the SRC,” said Karim Ahmad, a senior and supporter of Students at Work. “USFC makes or breaks it.”
Students at Work’s Joe Mouawad, also a winner Tuesday, told The Daily Star that the alliance with the PSP was what turned the tide in this year’s elections.
“The last three or four years they were not with us,” he said, adding that their votes this year probably ensured their victory.
Statistics released by student groups said that this year’s voter turnout was the highest in AUB’s history with over 70 percent of students participating in the voting process. This comes despite the proposed boycott of elections by leftist group Red Oak.
“The electoral process doesn’t represent students,” Kevork Assadourian, a junior, said earlier in the day as he held a sign that read “Boycott Elections.”
“We love elections and love the right to vote but the system is flawed and there is no accomplishment behind it.”
Last year only 40 percent of students voted, according to Assadourian, though this year’s turnout shows Red Oak’s initiative wasn’t as successful as hoped. Still, Assadourian said that the reaction to Red Oak’s proposal was positive as those vocally opposed engaged him in a calm manner and with dialogue.
In fact, the sentiment of peace and calm was echoed by each party. “It has been competitive but peaceful and harmonious,” Nizameddin said. “In Lebanon you often hope for the best and expect the worst.”
Tuesday showed mostly the best of the country as the elections results were received peacefully despite playful banter – some in the form of sectarian or homophobic chants – between parties before and during the unveiling of results. The only incident was a small shoving match after the results were published, though it didn’t appear to be between feuding parties and the students quickly calmed tensions without faculty or staff intervention.
Nizameddin said he hoped the elections would act as a model to show the rest of the Middle East that democracy could thrive in the region. “We are proud not just for Lebanon but also the region because we are in a position to have a democratically elected body and political rivalry that is peaceful and civilized,” he said.
This sentiment was echoed by students from all parties, which said the process had been incredibly civilized and without incident. “There have been no problems and no violence,” said Maya Mikdash, a representative of the Youth Club – a party with Students at Work that is affiliated with the Lebanese Forces.
Dimitri Maamari, a junior from the Free Patriotic Movement-affiliated Freedom Club, said the most aggression he had seen came from students pulling candidate flyers out of each other’s hands.
Overall though, Maamari said that “things are good here,” adding that the situation was better than at universities like Notre Dame University, where politics is not allowed. “What AUB did is good and shows that we are more democratic and it works here.”
Still, some students said the whole election process on campus was concerning for other reasons.
“These loyalty/family ties are too much, especially for AUB,” said Sakhr Munassar, a senior from Yemen who ran with Campus Choice and won an SRC seat in elections Tuesday. He added that there was too much sectarianism in the process.
On a technical level the elections went relatively smoothly, with just one particular hiccup. Nizameddin said students with expired student IDs slowed down the process as the IT department had to find a way to resolve the issue, whereas in years past the monitors could wave a student through.
Nizameddin praised AUB’s IT department for their hard work and said the electronic process allowed the elections to be more transparent.