The Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) sabbatical elections are finished, and the Electoral Commission (EC) has declared that both incumbents, President Gisèle Scanlon and Vice-President Abhisweta Bhattacharjee, have been re-elected. Not only does this outcome bode ill for the union, but the fact that it happened at all represents an erosion of the organisation’s basic democractic structures. The sabbatical team and the EC have questions to answer.
The electoral process
The conduct of the election overall was flawed. One week of campaigning with just one hustings is not enough for candidates to make their cases to the electorate and be scrutinised in turn.
There also was just insufficient management of the campaign by the GSU’s EC. There is much to criticise about how Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) runs its elections, but the GSU’s alternative, effectively not regulating how candidates run their campaigns at all, is considerably worse. It is highly inappropriate, for example, that two of the three candidates did not set up campaign social media at all but merely used their personal social media. This is especially egregious when that personal social media was, in Scanlon’s case, being used in an official capacity during her term as President, gaining a large following by being regularly shared by GSU institutional accounts.
There is also the elephant in the room: the delay in the release of election results. It is, to be blunt, not credible that the EC spent three hours “writing analysis”. There were just under 500 words of text attached to the announcement of results, true, but by the time these were dispatched, the EC had been in possession of the numbers for 15 hours; not that it mattered, because the “analysis” makes no reference to the numbers and could easily have been pre-written. It evidently was not though, and neither was it written over the course of three hours, because the text contains numerous spelling mistakes and was plainly put together very quickly.
There is no reason to believe that any malfeasance occurred around the results after voting was completed. But at the very least it seems obvious that there was some mistake or incompetence, and that the EC lied when it said that the delay was due to the never-before-mentioned need to write “analysis” in order to cover up this incompetence. Again, the electoral process was profoundly mismanaged and members of the union could be forgiven for losing faith in it.
The incumbent’s campaign
The real issue was not with the conduct of the election overall though, but Scanlon’s campaign.
First and foremost, it is hard to articulate just how grossly disrespectful and wrong it is for an incumbent officer to run while facing impeachment proceedings, having used their position to prevent that impeachment vote from being held. Scanlon did this.
At hustings, she claimed that the reason the vote had not been held was because the union’s Board is conducting an investigation into the issues that led to the impeachment. But the Board confirmed to this newspaper that it did not make any such decision, and there is nothing in any version of the GSU constitution that mandates it. The president has offered no alternative explanation, and it is therefore hard not to reach the conclusion that she simply decided she did not want to face the vote.
Most importantly, it does not matter whether or not Scanlon would have actually been voted out of office. The fact that the vote was not held is wrong in and of itself, and that it seems to have been blocked by the accused officer themselves constitutes a gross abuse of power. Moreover, the process of holding the necessary meeting and discussing the charges is an important mechanism of accountability even aside from the result of the vote, and to go into an election not having had to face that scrutiny undoubtedlybenefited Scanlon hugely.
Indeed, it does seem that the president has issues with scrutiny and questioning. The most serious cross-examination she faced during the campaign was the question about impeachment proceedings asked at hustings and, as just discussed, her answer was quite simply a lie. Her responses to other questions were nonspecific and generally failed to address what she was being asked.
She would have faced more scrutiny from Trinity’s student media had she, like the other two candidates, done even one brief interview during the campaign, but she did not. After initially agreeing to be interviewed by this newspaper, Scanlon ignored six separate attempts over four days to organise a meeting.
She also notably failed to respond to requests for comment from this or any other media outlet on any of the numerous news stories over the course of the election. This established pattern of being inaccessible and unwilling to engage with any critical environment is frankly unacceptable in an elected representative. She has a responsibility to face questioning outside the tightly controlled environment of a single hustings.
What this means for the union
With all of this in mind, it is the position of this newspaper that the GSU sabbatical team for 2021/22 has little to no democratic legitimacy. Trinity’s Postgraduate Workers’ Alliance (PGWA) laid out three actions it wanted to see taken by the EC and the wider union after the election, and these are undeniably reasonable and should be implemented. But even if the vote itself is confirmed to have been issue-free and an impeachment EGM is held, the damage has been done. The election was run under conditions which made it impossible for it to be free and fair. The fact that so many things could go so profoundly wrong makes clear that the GSU’s norms and institutions are not not capable of holding its officers to account.
This election had, according to the EC, the highest ever turnout of a GSU election; just under 15%. This chronic and abject lack of engagement will doubtless be made much worse if there is no functional electoral process to engage with.
However, even if one were to go back in time and rerun the election under equitable circumstances, any situation in which this sabbatical team is leading the GSU into the new year does not bode well for the organisation. The original problems at the April EGM that led to petitions calling for Scanlon and Bhattacharjee to be impeached, combined with the conduct of this election, make it clear that they are not interested in fairly representing their members, let alone taking decisive action on the problems faced by postgraduate students. Their plans for how to materially improve postgraduates’ circumstances range from the vague to the non-existent, and they have a record of hostility towards groups and people who suggest actual direct action, such as TCD PGWA.
This is the last thing the GSU needs. It is already unrecognised by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), its relationship with TCDSU has frayed significantly, and the fact that groups like PGWA are being set up is evidence that many people do not feel the union is capable of helping them. Reforms proposed this year, namely divestment from TCDSU and a rewrite of the constitution, would have made all the issues worse. It is true that TCDSU is flawed and far too ignorant of postgraduates, and the GSU’s old constitution was probably unfit for purpose, but these moves would have centered more power in the GSU Executive and made that Executive less accountable.
With Scanlon and Bhattacharjee returned to office via this shambolic election, the union seems likely to continue down this reactionary, illiberal path. Postgraduates deserve better.