mercredi 29 avril 2009

A Spectacular student election

Paru sur le site Palestine Monitor le 28 avril 2009
By Palestine Monitor

On Wednesday, the 15th of April, the annual student elections took place at Birzeit University, the most prestigious Palestinian campus in the West Bank. The University hosts over 6,000 students and is often considered as a symbol of defiance of the Israeli occupation.
On Wednesday, the 15th of April, the annual student elections took place at Birzeit University, the most prestigious Palestinian campus in the West Bank. The University hosts over 6,000 students and is often considered as a symbol of defiance of the Israeli occupation.

The student elections are important polls, second only to the national PA election, and are often said to be a reflection of Palestinian society. The outcome of this poll, in other words, tells how the outcome of the national one will be.

The majority of students participated passionately, while a smaller group acted more as observers. Preparations were impressive to say the least.

The Monday before elections, the campus, it felt like an amusement park. There was more security than usual by the entrance and, just inside, 10 people waited to greet you with party flyers.

The faculty buildings were covered with monstrous banderols, and every other person was wearing a printed t-shirt or scarf.

Loud music was coming from big speakers placed on a stage inside the campus commons, but before I reached it, a representative from one of the student parties started speaking.

It was a young Muslim woman, and she caught my interest even though I didn’t understand more than every tenth word of what she was saying.

She was well prepared, and the crowd of students standing in front of the stage were showing their support by yelling after every short breath-catching break the woman takes during her approximately five minute speech.

Once she finishes, another two from a different union took the stage. And so it went on until all the unions have had their chance to speak and attract undecided voters.

The next day the political debates took place. Only students and teachers were allowed to enter the university that day, but plenty of people came and stood outside the gates to listen.

On a different stage, representatives from the University Teachers Union were already seated together with all the Unions’ representatives, waiting for the missing representative to arrive in order for the two hour debate to begin. He made a different entrance, carried in on the shoulders of his union members all wearing green; the color of Hamas.

The unions that ran in the polls this year were: the Yaser Arafat bloc (Fatah), the Islamic al-Wafaa bloc (Hamas), the Progressive and Democratic Student Pole bloc, the Progressive Student union bloc, the Omar Qasem bloc, the Student Initiative (The Palestinian National Initiative) and the Independent Movement bloc

Some of the students present during the debate said they expected Palestinians to be more united, while others celebrated the democratic spirit in which the elections are held here.

Each union received 5 minutes of time to introduce themselves, and after which each union answered the same three questions, of the Student Affairs Deanship. This year, these were;
What do you think your party can do to improve the cultural level of the university?
What did your party accomplish last year and what would you like to do coming year?
What can your party do to help the intellectual thinking of the students at Birzeit University?

After this, the questioning was open to the audience.

While trying to squeeze myself through the crowd to get a better view of the stage, someone suddenly asked me ”So, what do you think about this?”. His name is Sami and he is in his fourth year at the university. He sounded pessimistic. ”It’s the same thing every year. They talk a lot, promise a lot and then when they finally win they don’t do any of it. It’s just a big show.”

”Isn’t that just politics in general?” I answer smiling.

Back on Wednesday, the proper voting day stretched from 8.30 a.m. until around 4.30 in the afternoon. All undergraduate students are allowed to vote and participation is usually high, above 80 %.

Before the result is announced, the university campus closes: a new policy implemented this year after previous years’ had seen clashes between parties.

After lunch, I met up with Yara Daik, a 21-year old woman studying translation. She was a member of the Student Council last year as a Fatah representative.

I am curious to know where the Student Unions’ campaigns are getting funding from, and she explains that almost everything comes from the national parties and their headquarters outside the university. However, “some of the unions here that don’t have a party sponsoring their actions raise money by taking minor fees for membership.”

Membership are a personal decision and students have the right to join any student union they like, or not at all.

The structure of the student unions
Yara explained the structure of each student union and how they are lead by a student from the university previously chosen by the party they’re affiliated to. This person then chooses his inner circle, both male and female. Directly under them, there are the cell leaders, male under male and female under female. Finally, between the cell leaders and the ordinary union members, are the cells themselves.

The majority of Student Unions have two programs to propose: one targets students and the university community, and the second focuses on the Palestinian society as a whole, a sort of student view on politics.

In Birzeit, the most powerful student unions, together with the Student Council, are able to support students in need with scholarships, study and academic support or social services. Cultural events are also organized, along with dinners and gatherings organized during the main Palestinian holidays.

For one union to represent the majority of the voters in the student parliament, 26 seats or more (out of 51 seats) are needed. If no union succeds in reaching a majority, a coalition is then set up and seats are spread out according to the percentage of the votes that every union gets.

Each seat gained represents approximately a hundred votes.

The Student Council
The Student Council consists of 11 members of an Executive Committee that is formed and supervised by the Student Parliament. It aims to form an enlightened student body and to foster a cooperative spirit among the various groups at the university.

The Council is built on numerous committees that focus on various area of the University life such as public relations, art and culture, educational issues, finance, social health and environment, athletics and the management of the cafeteria.

The Council is financed by the university, and being given around 100,000 shekels (approximately 20.000 euros) every year to be spread over all the committees.

The Student Council coordinates with the Office of Student Affairs on a wide range of cultural events, including art, photography, book exhibits, concerts, and folk and literary festivals. The body also assists with the planning of international work camps for students in the summer, as well as planning for community work projects.

As a broader aim, the University seeks to equip its students with in-depth knowledge through its comprehensive academic programs; and to develop their cultural and social awareness by providing them with opportunities to participate in academic, social and cultural activities held on campus.

2009’s results

This year, the participation rate reached 84,6 % in Birzeit, 10% above that of the latest 2006 national parliamentary elections.

The student list affiliated to Fatah was given 24 seats, while the one linked to Hamas was given with 22 seats.

A friend of mine told me that if Fatah won, the center of Ramallah would turn into a festival area. The prediction was right. Returning from Jerusalem that election day, we sow thousands of students, and non-students gathered to celebrate the win for Fatah with songs, music and flags until way past midnight.

It impresses me how meaningful student elections are. The political awareness of the youth in Palestine is far more important than where I am from.

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