It’s like Groundhog Day: virtually every year a new proposal is tabled in the University Council to change the electoral system into a party system, and every year it fails to materialise. The Rotterdam council has the lowest election turnout of all Dutch universities. At the same time, it is also the only university council in the country with neither a party system nor a list system. Candidates run as independents in the elections. The frustration in the council about this goes back to at least 2013. Last spring, a ‘party’ wanted to participate in the elections, but the Central Elections Office put a stop to this.
Parties would be able to attract more candidates – and in particular more voters – as well as offering greater continuity and accountability and preventing ghost council members, say supporters. However, proposals for change have never made it to the finish line unscathed. In 2018, the most successful attempt to bring about change did result in a move from a faculty system (where one or more seats could be won in each faculty) to a two-year pilot with a central electoral system, but the proposal to allow parties as well was then scrapped at the last minute.
This seems to have saddled the council with a ‘worst of both worlds’ compromise: no more guaranteed representation from each faculty and no improvement in the way you present yourself as a candidate in elections. Central elections without parties meant many candidates found it very difficult to get themselves seen in the run-up to the election, and this was especially the case during the coronavirus period. Therefore, in September, nine student members wrote a letter to the rest of the council calling on them to listen to the voice of the students on the council in this matter.
This was ignored. A survey by EM reveals that during last Tuesday’s anonymous vote, ten out of twelve students voted for the student party system. Two voted against. Of the staff, it’s likely that seven out of twelve voted against and two in favour. The other members cast blank votes. The outcome: 12-9. Since a two-thirds majority is required for a system change, the proposal was rejected.
The fact that a two-thirds majority was not reached is due to the number of dissenting votes among staff. That is all the more stinging because the proposal does not directly affect the staff; it only concerns the student elections. However, Albert Wagelmans, who worked on the proposal as a member of staff and also voted in for it, believes it is a good thing that staff also have their say on student matters, saying, “We are asking everyone to take a critical look at all proposals. It is my impression that everyone is willing to listen to each other too. But then it may turn out that based on all the arguments, some members reach a different conclusion”.
Wouter van Dam, chairman of the students in the council and one of the twelve who voted in favour of the proposal, calls it ‘a great pity’ that it was voted down because he firmly believes that some of the dissenters in the debate running up to the vote had not been clear about their standpoints.” However, I must say I felt there was too little time for a proper debate on the subject”.
‘Some members are saying we haven’t had enough time to discuss this. But that simply isn’t true’
Council chairman Hans van den Berg – himself a member of staff and as neutral Chair in the debate – also wonders why council members with reservations did not ‘raise their hands more often’ while the proposal was being discussed. “Some members are saying we haven’t had enough time to discuss this. But that simply isn’t true. This council has been working on this topic for six months, and proposal have already been sent back and forth an unbelievable number of times”. However, Van den Berg admits, some opposing council members may have felt unheard on certain occasions.
However, there are fundamental objections to the party system among some staff as well as among students. There is a fear that minorities, for instance, international students and students from immigrant backgrounds, will not gain a foothold in the parties there are or have yet to be established. “This proposal does not address that fear”, says student member Younes Assou. Other members fear a politicisation of the council because parties would want to set themselves apart from the rest. This would complicate the relationship with the Executive Board. In order to be strong, the council is now trying to present itself as much as possible as a single block in opposition to the Executive Board.
Alternative systems, such as a system in which you rank your favourite candidates or a return to the old faculty system, are also being pitched. The question is whether a new proposal can be worked out quickly enough for it to be voted on in time. If a decision is not taken quickly, it will no longer be possible to convert the software in time for the elections in April, and there will be another delay lasting a year or more.
However, most councillors also seem unhappy with the current system, in which there are central elections but no parties. It is uncertain which direction the council elections need to take. Next week, chair Van den Berg has scheduled an informal meeting to see whether the council can agree on a proposal to boost co-participation, for example by extending the current pilot with central elections.