BEIRUT: Establishment parties racked up big wins in the American University of Beirut student elections Friday, with many citing a renewed focus on university-level issues, rather than national politics, as the cause.
The “Students For Change” campaign affiliated to Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, Progressive Socialist Party and Free Patriotic Movement won eight seats on the highly prized University Student Faculty Committee, with seven going to the Lebanese Forces- and Future Movement-affiliated “Leaders of Tomorrow.” The secular “Campus Choice” won three seats.
The strategy to stay away from national politics appeared to have convinced many student voters.
“They’re emphasizing on helping out student life quality of life changes that really can go far. They’re not making [overambitious] promises,” said Raja Yassine, a third-year Political Sciences major.
One of the organizers of Students For Change told The Daily Star that the group had promised “simple things. ... I want to convince voters to come for things I can achieve.”
Talal Nezameddin, the university’s Dean of Student Affairs, suggested this change in tactics reflected a general disenchantment with the country’s major political parties, especially in the context of the recent political crisis and failure to form a government.
“There is general disappointment and disgust [towards] many of the political parties and political issues. ... It is hard to make people go and vote on that basis,” Nezameddin said. “I know from the campaign leaders on the ground, they’ve been telling us they cannot get people motivated on that basis.”
New strategy notwithstanding, establishment groups are still evidently the best route to electoral success. Some campaigners were drawn to alliances with the major groups in order to stand the best chance of victory. One candidate, affiliated with the PSP, said he had run with Students For Change because of the strong platform the group offered despite the fact that the PSP had run with Leaders of Tomorrow in this year’s elections at the Lebanese American University and also previously at AUB.
The candidate, who did not give his name, did not see a contradiction, however. “You know [PSP leader] Walid Joumblatt’s politics,” he said. “He likes to change.”
One of the successful candidates for the faculty committee, who ran with Leaders of Tomorrow, said he would not have been able to run his campaign without the group’s support. “Without the work that everybody’s helping me to do, phone calls and stuff, I wouldn’t have a chance to get to the elections as an independent,” said Salim Halablab, who won a seat through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
That advantage was evidenced in one of the campaigning techniques employed by the three major groups: campaigners with clipboards listing voters’ names and telephone numbers spent much of the day making calls to persuade students to come and vote. While lists of registered students exist on the university’s website, their contact details are not publicly available. This is not a problem for the larger parties, explained one Students For Change campaigner, who did not give his name.
“It depends on the manpower. The candidate, if he knows a lot of people, has the numbers [or] the WhatsApp groups if they’re already friends in the same major.” This enables the groups to compile lists of prospective voters. “It all depends on how crafty you are,” the campaigner said. A Campus Choice campaigner confirmed the group used similar techniques, while Leaders of Tomorrow campaigners were seen with similar voter lists.
Unlike their major rivals, Campus Choice seemed to be occupying a middle ground: rejecting establishment politics while also tying itself to movements outside the university.
“We’re a political group in that we’re also an anti-establishment group. [We have] a role in the anti-establishment campaign in the country, whether it’s against the garbage crisis, helping [civil society organization] Beirut Madinati, [or] employing a progressive form of politics foreign to the sectarian connotations of Lebanese society,” said Karim Safieddine, president of AUB’s Secular Club, which is tied to the Campus Choice movement.
Some voters were clearly on board with the anti-establishment message. “I voted for the people who I believe are actually there to do something about [student issues] and not there to represent a certain religion or a certain political party,” said Jessie al-Hawa, a junior biology major and pre-med student. “Maybe if we could just make this more about the students and less about religion and politics, which have been abusing us for ages, that would be better.”
Nonetheless, Campus Choice seemingly failed to convince some students that they offered a viable alternative to the other two parties, with their mainstream ties. One student, who gave her name as Hayat, said she was not voting at all. “I don’t want to get involved in the politics of it all. I think the political system in Lebanon and the way it is reflected here, it is not a very fair game,” she said.