I’ve never been this impressed by any student union electoral candidate—and that includes the year that I ran with the “opposition” slate. When the U of T Students’ Union election period opened with one slate of candidates all running unopposed, I prepared for a fairly quiet campaign with little debate. Then the candidate for vice-president external dropped out with only a day left in the campaign.
In an open letter on Facebook to her Team Renew colleagues, Sana Ali announced her forfeiture and accused the candidates of “groupthink”, suppressing ideas that do not adhere to their predetermined platform, and failing to listen to the valid concerns of students deemed the “opposition”. As of press time, the Facebook post has received nearly 1,600 likes, more than 400 shares, and 115 comments. I’ll bet the letter has garnered more hits than Team Renew website.
While many people on this campus probably weren’t around when I ran for the VP external position on the “opposition” slate for the UTM Students’ Union, it’s no secret. I’m that much more grateful for Ms. Ali’s courage and honesty. Someone who has experienced a student union election from the inside has finally stepped forward in the most respectable way. She dropped out.
With eloquence and tact, Ms. Ali kept her points germane to the campaign. Without personally attacking the other candidates, she expressed her doubts about the system and the slate. This is much more than can be said for the video response from Team Renew (Part 1 and Part 2), released on YouTube on Sunday afternoon.
While I appreciate the slate’s effort to engage stakeholders through new media, the video lacked the professionalism of Ms. Ali’s letter. The video disregarded many of Ms. Ali’s points and instead referred to the texting sessions between the candidates, long meetings that brought about bonding, and rides home after tiring days. What does that have to do with electoral reform and open dialogue to promote transparency? Absolutely nothing. I can only assume that the tone and tears in the video are meant to tug at our heartstrings and make us resent Ms. Ali for hurting her fellow candidates’ feelings.
To understand just how powerful a statement Ms. Ali’s actions made, you need to know what she walked away from. As VP external, Ms. Ali would liaise with the provincial government and university administrators on student affairs. Oh, the networking opportunities! Even greater, the position is by no means a volunteer one. UTSU executives receive a substantial full-time salary. (Go ask. Executives consistently sidestep the question in public forums.)
While UTM hasn’t seen an election with more than one slate since spring 2010, two slates consistently participate in UTSU elections. One is always dubbed the incumbent slate, promoting unity, and the other the opposition slate, promoting change.
Until this year, that is. Without opposition, Ms. Ali’s position was ideal. As the sole candidate, Ms. Ali could have floated through the elections on Team Renew platform. Instead, she walked away from a well-paid job with numerous intangible benefits.
Her actions provided greater insight into the issues of UTSU than any opposition team campaign. By the time Ms. Ali realized her dilemma, she had a few options to consider. She could either stick it out with Renew and try to implement reform next year, leave Team Renew and announce her candidacy on an independent platform, or forfeit the election completely.
If she had kept quiet and continued with Renew, she would have been expected to adhere to the team objectives during her term. After all, she would have been voted in for her exposure and electoral promises under the slate. On the flipside, the campaign period was coming to a close and Ms. Ali didn’t have enough time to renounce her candidacy with the slate to launch an independent platform. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have won the election, if only because of the vacancy on the slate. I’ve never seen an independent candidate win an election.
As her letter states, Ms. Ali believes that this year’s election clearly demonstrates a strong need for reform. I share her opinion that an unopposed election demonstrates students’ frustration with the student union. Our student union executives allegedly claim that they ran unopposed because the rest of us are too lazy to put in the hard work. Those that have tried tend to say they don’t want to run again because it’s impossible to beat the machine.
Well, I put in the hard work. For months (that’s right, these slates don’t magically form the night before campaign launch), I worked with a slate of candidates to shape our policy and message. We were considered the opposition slate because we weren’t running under the usual message of unity and solidarity and we donned a team colour that wasn’t yellow and green—the usual UTMSU campaign scheme. But the other team did and they were considered the incumbents.
One by one, the members of my slate and I were pulled aside by those involved in the student union to discourage us from running. I stuck to my one question: Why wouldn’t you want more than one team running for election? Isn’t that democratic?
UTSU’s elections this year have come to an end and the VP external position will remain vacant until a by-election is held. I hope Ms. Ali will be a candidate. Over at the other end of U of T, UTMSU’s campaign begins this week. I wish I could say I’m excited to discuss student issues, but that would be optimistic.