There is a trend that appears to follow the annual elections period in UNMC. Generally, each year, the number of voters is celebrated with exclamations of “more than ever before”. Positive as these declarations are, it is strange to note that the annual student turnout (which is often presented with delight) is not subjected to intense questioning. Yes, numbers may signal a tangible or calculable weight to the talk of ‘student involvement’ that many universities pride themselves in. But the question is, how much quality can quantity bring?
Let the Numbers Speak
In last year’s elections, students contributed a total of 1761 votes. During the 2015/16 term, 1449 votes were collected. Even further back, in 2014, 2063 votes were cast, beating the record of 1444 in the year prior. At first glance, the four digit numbers may seem impressive. However, the reality is unsettling – on average, an aggregate of only 40% of students vote for the nominated SA candidates.*
To put this in a clearer context, this means that more than half of Nottingham’s student body – their interests, their voice, their issues – are not being represented in SA policies. But of course, the SA is not the sole body to blame. Other factors, such as personal ignorance, dedicated political abstinence, or a genuine lack of interest on the students’ behalf, also contributes to low voting turnout. But it’s worth exploring why 60% of the UNMC student community seem to find it difficult to connect with the issues that candidates centre their campaigns around – even with 22 different candidates representing ranges of student affairs to root for (as per the 2016/2017 term).
So, why are the majority of students seemingly uninterested in non-academic student policies? And why was the year with the largest turnout also the year of unethical campaigning?
Yes, it’s true. The year with the most voters was also the year of campaign controversies. In the words of the 2013/2014 SA President, Ben Hunte himself, it was “the biggest, juiciest, most dramatic elections that UNMC has ever had”.
That was the year of campaigning “wherever you want, whenever you want.” The online voting system had also just been introduced, possibly attracting the curiosity of previously politically apathetic students. But along with all the hype also emerged reports of alleged harassment of students for their votes.
This is where the contradiction between the number of votes and the interests of voters become the most significant. Students who support and believe in a candidate will give their vote. But unethical methods, such as harassing students with enough annoyance to the point of obtaining their OWAs and passwords, and then voting on their behalf – this creates votes too.
That being said, some may ask what the big issue is. After all, democracy, like the assurance of ‘student involvement’ based on voting turnout, is a numbers game. So why it does it matter how these numbers are obtained?
The contention is this: in an arena of politics situated within local (read: Malaysian) contexts, which are often better known for controversies in policy making, the least we could do is rebuild politics from our little hub in Semenyih. In that regard, and after discussing the unethical, an understanding of campaigning ethics may be due.
What passes as ethical campaigning? In terms of the SA Elections, it is stated in the Campaigning Regulations that campaign tactics such as vote-fishing, vote-buying, violent badgering, harassment, and all other forms of ill-tactics to gain an advantage like sabotaging, forming alliances or pleading any of the current or past SA Executives to assist or promote them in any way or form – are all strictly prohibited.
Of course, the Election Committee (EC) and the Returning Officer (RO) also exist to ensure neutrality is maintained by enforcing penalties on candidates that campaign unfairly. However, in spite of the EC and RO monitoring the election candidates, the standard guideline of what goes and what blows during campaigns remains at the surface level.
In fact, manifesto and hustings guidelines are much more objective – clearly disallowing candidates from instances of moral concern. For example,referring to present or previous individual members of the SA by name, presenting unsubstantiated claims, expressing an opinion as fact, advocating discrimination, being harmful to the fair running of the elections, or attacking other candidates either implicitly or explicitly. On the other hand, existing campaigning regulations talk more about where not to put your poster than what not to do when campaigning.
Despite this, the Student Council Steering Committee Secretary, Dinesh Jayabalan, says that there are several ways that candidates can campaign ethically and effectively.
Among these would be the use of social media. Jayabalan suggests that candidates campaign through social media via creative posts and engaging content. They can make videos and even carry out ‘Question and Answer’ sessions (on Facebook Live, for example).
Then, there are the more traditional but still ethical ways of letting students know about the elections. Jayabalan says that this includes going to lecture halls and campaigning with the permission of the lecturers, being more involved in the student council by attending meetings and even interviews with students. He says that, “Doing more campaigning shows that you care more about UNMC through actions rather than words.”
What’s interesting about Jayabalan’s insight is that he may just echo the silent voices of the non-voting 60%.
Something that is common, but unchallenged, is that candidates may often appeal to some students rather than most. It is very easy to fall into the trap of building campaign strategies around feedback that is based on close friends or personal experiences. Although this helps create a believable brand or image, especially as it is personal to the candidate and thus more likely to be upheld, it is done at the risk of silencing those outside immediate social circles.
In Jayabalan’s previous suggestions of ethical campaigning tactics, one may see variants of the same theme: the need for engagement and interaction between candidates and students. Yes, posters are a must, and personal grudges and inside knowledge often lead to heated hustings. But there needs to be effort to fill the gap of interests between the 40% and the 60% as well.
So What Does This All Mean?
Commonly heard in election week talk among the outcasts and the uninterested is that the elections are about popularity rather than ability. To this, Jayabalan states that he believes democracy itself is a popularity contest. But then he adds that previously, some of the executives were penalized for being unethical during campaigns and yet they still won.
This lack of accountability reflects mostly in whispers of the SA being unfair or inconsiderate, which pop up every now and again in the Expressions page. Voters want to know that they are being heard. Eye-catching manifestos aren’t as attractive when they remain unfulfilled at the end of the Executive term. Hence, overdue poster fees need to be replaced with policies that penalise officers who fail to fulfil their manifestos without valid reasons. Candidates should strive to represent, include, and above all, remain ‘ethical’ – of relating to moral principles, being morally good, and correct.
On the other hand, non-voters arguing for free-flow of information regarding candidate’s backstories and personal lives in the name of ethics need to readjust their stance. Yes, as moral is subjective, it may in fact be ethical to provide access to candidate information, even the juicy bits. But as Jayabalan explains, simply –
“You must weigh what the candidates are bringing to the table rather than what they do in their personal life. People should [be asking for] free flow access to whatever the candidate has done in a professional manner, not their personal issues and problems.”
Of course, not all are to be condemned. Some officers have brought much change to the campus, leaving respectable legacies behind. But the fact that some SA Executive Positions have only one contending candidate this year speaks volumes about the students’ current interest in the Association that is supposed to represent them.
One last thing worth noting: despite its drama, the 2013/14 election period was also the year with the most number of candidates (45!) to vote for.
Of course, more candidates lead to more voters and more voters result in more numbers of votes. But perhaps it is possible to hope that the larger number of candidates covered a broader spectrum of issues, which generated inclusiveness and attracted more student interest.
Here is the premise: more representation equals more votes.
This is the conclusion: to overcome exclusive policies, we must offer alternatives worth voting for.
*Calculated based on the most recent student population figures released by UNMC; inclusive of Foundation, Undergraduate and Postgraduate Taught.
Written by Amirah Qistina
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the editorial team at IGNITE.
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