Given the high attendance at some of their protests, and the success of regular campaigns and services during the year, it’s hard to argue that the Students’ Union is not ‘Engaging’. Events run by the Entertainments Forum have sold out, around 450 students gathered to protest against management last month, and the Owen Keegan protests drew national attention.
What’s lacking in engagement then is participation in UCDSU’s internal politics, with fewer class representatives this year than the previous few. Of the non-sabbatical executive races, there are no candidates in 6 constituencies. One of these, the role of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences college officer, needs two. Of the two races with candidates, only one is contested, that of the Law college officer.
The races for the sabbatical roles are also largely uncontested. There is a race for the role of Education officer, but that’s it. The notoriously difficult to fill position of Graduate Officer once again has no candidates, and will therefore presumably go to a summer by-election.
While it is not the view of the University Observer that a candidate who runs uncontested save for RON is not fairly elected, it is certainly not seen as a sign of a robust political landscape for students either. The danger in this is three-fold.
Firstly, candidates who are not seen to have won a fair competition for their roles once elected will have a harder time convincing UCD management of their mandate. Outgoing president Deeks has been known to make disparaging remarks about “participation on campus” whenever there is a public demonstration of low engagement in Union activities.
Second, a lack of candidates leads to a lack of competition, something that is healthy in a democracy. A potential representative for the student body should be compared against at least one other option, and a candidate who knows they may lose will undoubtedly put more effort into thinking out their policies and learning what they can and cannot do than a candidate who is guaranteed to win.
Thirdly, a variety of candidates should mean a variety of outlooks. Last year’s presidential race saw candidates compete not only on minor differences and experience, but on major tactical questions about how the Union should view its role and relationship with management. The contest over this year’s education officer role is simply less substantive.
Students have demonstrated on several occasions this year that they do genuinely want to see changes in how UCD is run, and that they are happy to get behind the Union. What if, however, an unsatisfactory candidate were to run unopposed for a sabbatical role? Without stiff competition, such a candidate could easily take on a role and tank the good work of previous years.
The only way to maintain the momentum that students seem to support is for election time to become more competitive and engaging. The divides and differences between how students want the union to behave and operate should come alive at election time. Students supportive of the current direction should welcome more candidates and a challenge to their views, as it can only make the Union stronger.
To address these concerns, students should first of all vote in the executive elections, even in the uncontested races. Moving forward, students should consider running themselves in future elections. Ultimately, without a healthy democratic culture, the Union cannot maintain political relevance.