The Leadership Race: taking the politics out of politics

Eva Short

Staff Writer

Student Union Election season is here. Once again we are subjected to the two week rigmarole of fliers, “catchy” slogans and t-shirt clad campaigners waxing lyrical about their candidate of choice. Our social media inboxes are flooded with shameless plugging and many find themselves so often accosted by Sabbat hopefuls and each respective entourage that they feel inclined to hiss at any approaching person with even a vague air of partisanship. This particular juncture in the college year, in this sense, screams ‘politics’. Yet I find that politics is what this round of elections notably lacks, at least in the case of our Presidential hopefuls. Politics (for the optimist, at least) implies an engagement with and discussion of important topics. Politics can be seen in the undeniable charm of the candidates and their punchily written manifestos. Their wide smiles – or more, Cheshire grins – at times eerily mirror the expressions of our TDs, but the same cannot be said of the candidates’ choices to tiptoe around potentially contentious issues. The Dail and the decorum of those within the Dail are rife with issues (that’s an entire article in itself), but at least we can say that these debates are at times heated. In the case of our elections, there will never need to be a Chief whip to ensure order, as the would-be Presidents are in an epic battle to determine who can emerge the most vanilla and inoffensive of them all.

Perhaps this is understandable though – the SU is, at least in theory, an all-encompassing Union intended to represent all 17,000 Trinity students, so expressing specific views runs the risk of excluding people. With the threat of Union disaffiliation looming in light of the attempt of one UCD student last year, the potential risk of totally alienating students is not to be underestimated. This is an especially dangerous possibility for the Presidential candidates given  how rare a breed the student voter is. A little over four thousand students presented at last year’s elections, representing less than a quarter of the student body – the remainder, it would appear, only want to go to the effort of taking out their student card when being given some sort of discount. Were a candidate to manage to run on the bad side of a mere 40 people, that would account for 1% of the voters. That 1% could be the difference between a candidate cruising into a year long paid position and finding themselves mourning the money spent on campaign materials while seeking solace at the bottom of a pint glass on the eve of the election result announcement. The anxiety that undoubtedly accompanies trying to strike this delicate balancing at least explains why Presidential candidates may retreat from commenting on topics circulating around campus.

This is an explanation, but not an excuse. The goal for candidates, it appears, is to be as apolitical as possible, allowing their views to be entirely contingent on whoever it is they’re talking to at that very moment. These people are ultimately vying for a coveted position and the number of benefits that come with it, including the salary that each student contributes towards when paying registration. Avoiding controversy strengthens each candidate’s bid for personal advancement at the expense of clarity, clarity which is ultimately a right of every Trinity student. For it is average Trinity student who foots the bill of the winner’s tenure, and the average Trinity student who, upon entering college, automatically becomes affiliated an organisation at which this candidate is at the helm. They are, in light of this, entitled to have clear ideas of how their President’s views align – or differ – from their own.

This comes back to the question of disaffiliation. As a college community Trinity fortunately remains relatively untouched by party politics, meaning our student elections aren’t extremely complicated affairs, but a resulting schism from students disaffiliating en masse runs the risk of inviting this external influence into our sphere. Ensuring that no student ever feels incensed enough to leave the union perhaps maintains harmony. It raises another problem though; If Presidential candidates truly can’t express explicit views due to an obligation to remain impartial, then to what end is the college community participating in the Election fanfare?

Is it really that we go through all this trouble just to appoint someone to crusade for staplers and repaired microwaves? For feedback apps, printers and plugs? Tangible improvements, yes, but hardly groundbreaking. The rest seems to be smoke, mirrors, and those elusive buzzwords such as “transparency in the SU.” At this stage, “transparency” is such a tired term that it could mean anything – candidates could be suggesting the installation of more windows in House Six or mandating that all sabbatical officers wear see-through coats like the replicant stripper in Blade Runner, perish the thought. While these suggestions seem ludicrous, the silence from the Presidential candidates means there is very little to contradict my assertions. I could for the most part interpret the carefully chosen words of their policies in any way that I so wished.

Regardless of what is or is not said, however, one of the two Presidential hopefuls will be elected as head of the union. I for one, intend to hold onto the winner’s campaign literature; I’ll keep the crumpled leaflet sitting in a drawer until this time next year, when I can pull out the manifesto and ask myself how the person represented on shining paper compares the person who sat in the second floor officer. I will search between the lines for any indication of how Domhnall or Jasper would end up governing themselves and the union, for hints at where their opinion would fall on key issues. If the President leaving the sabbat position in 2015 looks nothing like their well rehearsed campaigning-mode self, I’ll consider myself cheated, and I should hope that everyone else would consider themselves cheated too.