Commentary: Are student councils faltering?

Decline in voter turnout, controversies, and an increasing disconnect between student leaders and their constituents remains perpetual during University elections.

The annual University Student Government (USG) elections is an important process to ensure that Lasallians are well-governed and well-represented. However, in recent history, these elections have only resulted in passable success as voter turnouts clung to the minimum requirement despite several extensions of voting deadlines. It has also been common in recent University elections history that some positions are left vacant either due to having no runners or not enough voters. 

Being no stranger to numerous controversies over the years, the USG seems to have lost the trust of the student body.

No matter how charismatic candidates are or how promising their platforms appear to be, bridging the striking disconnect between Lasallian student leaders and their constituents remains to be a Herculean work in progress.

Even the cancellation of General Elections 2023 only caused minimal buzz outside the political realm. It begs the question of whether the USG, as well as other university student councils in the country, still remain robust to this day.

In 2015—in what was perhaps the biggest electoral debacle in USG history—most candidates were disqualified following noncompliance with the DLSU Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) guidelines. Not only was this a manifestation of neglect within parties, but it was also a wipeout of the number of options that the student body had for their leaders. In the end, only six seats were filled out of the required 75, resulting in a failure of elections and the lowest voter turnout in USG history, totalling to only 35.9 percent.

Even personal lives and well-being have supposedly been affected by the University’s political landscape, expanding the gap between political parties and their to-be-constituents. Before General Elections 2021, then-member of Alyansang Tapat sa Lasallista (Tapat) Jasmine Paras spoke on how she was “forcibly removed” from the party’s electoral slate due to mental health issues, shedding light on the “emotional and mental harm” that comes with partisan involvement.

Questionable stances also are a matter to address by political parties. Santugon sa Tawag ng Panahon (Santugon) notably finds itself ridden in issues surrounding activism. Former Santugon President Paolo Teh drew flak for making comments on not wanting to attend rallies because he is not “woke” and he does not want to be hit by a baton. They also were called out for allegedly red-tagging rival Tapat before Make-Up Elections 2022, which led them to not field candidates that year. 

Issues constantly plaguing student councils have made students more apathetic and disinterested in campus politics.

Amid all these, what might be the biggest detriment to student involvement in Lasallian politics are the controversies that loom over the officers. Issues in the USG such as stealing scholarship funds, unfair financial handouts, and cronyism in appointing officers—be it rumors or realities—contribute a huge factor to student trust.

These issues go beyond the local landscape and are observed in other student councils as well. Earlier this year, student council aspirants in Leyte Normal University drew flak online for their stances on different issues raised in an interview conducted by the university’s official student publication. They faced criticisms especially for their “backward” points on sticking with the school’s traditional dress code with remarks like “men should dress up as men, while women should dress up as women.”

Moreover, the recently concluded student council elections in University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) resulted in a majority abstention vote for chairperson and vice chairperson, only eight seats out of the supposed 12 councilors being filled, and a dismal 36.7-percent turnout. Prior to the polls, candidates from a major political alliance in UPD withdrew from the elections after coming under fire for mishandling cases of abuse within the alliance. 

There is a magnified failure on the part of student councils when they are not able to represent the best interests of the student body. If student leaders are unwilling to be transparent with their constituents or are simply unprepared to provide their stances on pressing issues, it chips away at their capability as leaders. Concerns surrounding student councils then become a jab not just to the credibility of leaders involved in controversies but also to the councils themselves. The more that these problems recur, the less hope the students feel toward the improvement of their governments.

These instances, as frequent as they occur, show how trust between student councils and their constituents has been a promise that continues to be broken. Without the foundation of trust, the student body is less inclined to engage with government affairs. Their guard is up; no candidate can ever win their vote, and down goes the figures of voter turnout. Student leaders need to establish and uphold trust within the student body to spark productive interactions and encourage them to be more politically participative. It would take consistent efforts toward progressiveness—by everyone in the political scene making informed stances to prove to its apathetic population that they are worth the attention.

Beyond mending the interactions between leaders and their constituents, there must be assurance that systems in place are functional and are upheld. This includes not just the executives that become the faces of student governance but also the legislative, the judiciary, the polling body, and all other facets that make up the student government. 

Students will not be apathetic if their student government is worth believing in and if their student politics is not just a microcosm of its national counterpart. Students deserve proper systems that would ensure their representation, so there is a need for incumbent officers to uphold genuine service in their own lines of work. We all need to realize that we can only revitalize political participation when leaders hold on to their sweet promises of fixing our current faltering systems.

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