By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
When a Philippine news website released the results of the University Student Council (USC) elections in the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, readers questioned the choice of coverage. The update came out under its “Nation” section. Was it relevant to non-members of the UP community?
While this article is not an endorsement or defense of the site’s editorial judgment, a glance at this particular student activity may offer some points in light of the coming midterm elections.
As an open campus, UP Diliman is exposed to events and issues in the so-called real world. More so, the dynamics of the students, teachers, and the community in and around UP make up an academic mirror to issues facing the country.
And perhaps the yearly elections for UP Diliman’s USC reminds us of the Philippines in many ways.
The USC polls and the three-week-long campaign before them are a mix of the traditional and the ideal. There are elements familiar to national politics and others yet to be seen on a bigger scale, both good and bad.
Up for grabs are 33 university-wide positions and 250-plus posts in each college council.
This battle for voters, albeit among more than 23,000 students, can rival a KampanyaSerye-style local race in intensity–fortunately minus the violence known to some hotspots.
The issues can get hot and the exchange of diatribes even hotter. They range from matters affecting college students to matters relevant to the national, an involvement inseparable from the Iskolar ng Bayan. Even non-students in UP say they have a stake in the polls.
The results may have no direct bearing on the national scale, but the leaders these students elect and the stances they take will help determine the direction of the student movement led by many from this campus.
This 2013, UP students mark 100 years since electing their first student council. To some, this year’s polls continue to test if students will keep to or depart from the brand of student leadership and national participation represented by their outgoing leaders.
UP Diliman’s polls last February 28 resulted in a council led by KAISA, the youngest of the three university-wide political alliances/parties. In a first, KAISA won top posts chairperson, vice chairperson, and number one councilor.
After students gradually voted in fewer candidates from previously dominant parties STAND-UP and ALYANSA since 2006, the incoming 2013 USC faces the challenge of agreeing on a direction to lead the campus in.
In predominantly Left-leaning UP politics, the parties all tag themselves as activists. Nevertheless, their stands on issues like tuition increase, state subsidy for education, or even the latest public scandal can vary.
This Left spectrum is color-coded too: red STAND-UP is the extreme of the left, blue ALYANSA is on the opposite end, and yellow KAISA often stands in between.
This dedication to ideologies differs this brand of politics from nominal student body exercises. It is a big deal here for parties to be involved or have a say in campus and national issues throughout the school year and not just when elections are nearby. Do otherwise and you’ll be called out for it at the campaign.
Compare this to Philippine party politics, where the tying bonds of parties are their founders or leaders and their relationships to the administration. Party names and colors are worn and shed like clothes nearly every three years. And no issue, since national party ideologies revolve around very similar motherhood goals.
Jumping parties in UP Diliman is taboo and even rare. And while some personalities have risen in fame from the party lines through the years, they have come and gone. Still left are the parties that train and attract a new generation of leaders and voters.
Yet political parties in UPD share some similarities with their national counterparts. Their histories involve splits and break-ups–although in UP’s case, they arose largely out of differences in ideology. STAND-UP, ALYANSA, and KAISA could all be traced to past dominant party SAMASA.
The parties also have bailiwicks among the colleges and courses, making the voting behavior of UP Diliman students an observable trend, akin to the red and blue states in the US.
Personalities vs issues
Nevertheless, USC elections every year cannot avoid classic elements associated with national campaigns.
Thus by February, the campus becomes littered with flyers, posters, and stickers as parties and candidates engage in a race for recall. The flyers are filled with programs, statements, endorsements, or attacks. The posters and stickers—stuck from jeepneys to waiting sheds—are emblazoned with the names and pictures of those running.
For the parties, a vote for their ideology should mean a vote for their entire slate, no matter if the candidates are veterans or not. But straight voting has hardly been the cumulative case in UP Diliman, at least since youngest party KAISA came into the scene in 2005.
The elections are in large part popularity contests judging from past results, as students still consider their personal knowledge of candidates when casting their ballots.
With such a scheme, parties still devote their energies into drumming up their running personalities. It’s seen in the wearing and repetition of nicknames during room-to-room campaigns and in the rhyming slogans worthy of a commercial.
The reality of personality politics often centers on the battle for USC chairperson. The most-promoted names in the lineups, the chairperson candidates are the main faces of their parties during the campaign period. That’s not to mention the clout any party would have over the council when their candidate wins.
Their clashes are focal points in the election, especially when well-known students face off for the top post. In 2000, Raymond Palatino of STAND-UP (now Kabataan partylist representative) beat now-broadcaster Mariz Umali of SAMASA, ensuring STAND-UP’s dominant presence in local politics.
The chairperson race is also where black propaganda can overshadow the more-pertinent issues permeating the campaign.
In 2013, the candidate who bore the worst brunt was KAISA standardbearer Ana Alexandra “Alex” Castro. She eventually won the election by more than 1,500 votes over both her opponents, but not without being charged with flip-flopping stances and called derogatory names during the campaign.
Independent candidates for the USC are few and rare. And not always do UP students vote them into the council. Eventual winners often presented a stand-out campaign focus—like Kester Yu, who won top councilor in 2009 with an environmental platform. This year, no independent candidate ran for the university-wide posts.
This year’s polls did not merit the media attention they got in 2012, when the USC’s first transgender chairperson Gabriel Paolo “Heart” Diño won in a comeback victory for ALYANSA. The news stories then focused on Diño’s win as an achievement for gender rights in the country.
Hardly noticed too was the effort behind one of the country’s largest campus election automated counts. On its fifth year of large-scale use, UP Diliman’s “Halalan” open-sourced system consolidated votes cast via computer terminals in colleges spaced kilometers apart. All a student needs is his/her student number and a pre-generated password.
The UP Linux Users Group or UnPLUG developed the system. They started out automating the votes in UP dormitories back in 2005, then in selected college council votes afterward. Only after winning an IBM server in an international contest did UnPLUG have the means for a university-wide count in 2009.
The automation turned what was a vigil till early morning at the Vinzons student center into as early as 30 minutes. Recently, the wait has gone back to two hours at most to account for manual votes, colleges that finished late, and preparation by the University Student Electoral Board for its proclamation of the results.
Like its national counterpart, UP’s automation has its share of delays and glitches nonetheless. Last February 28, 58 of the 11,245 votes cast (5.15 percent) were still manual due to difficulties for some students in casting their votes. Even so, no fears of manipulation or major malfunction have yet to materialize.
The proclamation at the Vinzons lobby is as festive and as noisy as the national. Supporters of the three parties come in color and in force to cheer up or cheer down winners. Election day is also the center of attention for a number of student publications, including the campus radio station dzUP.
But despite a reputation for awareness and involvement, it is still a challenge to get most UP Diliman students to vote. University-wide turnout has hardly breached half the student population in recent years. This year it was only 48.4 percent.
Some students say they are “tired” of the politicking and the mudslinging, others of the extreme focus on the national compared to the local. While they have a say on issues outside campus, these students also ask what their council can do for them as fellow students–one parallel with the national psyche. And it is something the parties have taken to balancing between.
First-year students at UP Diliman are told they are entering a microcosm of society. The tuition increase of 2006 helped dispel that notion, as financial means now determines in part who enrolls in the so-called “national university”.
All the same, the USC elections show that the future leaders and voters are a parallel of their countrymen, both in how this political exercise is and could be done.