Student union elections provide student politicians and voters the opportunity to discuss the possibilities of change and improvement to livelihood on campus. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) spring election was supposed to be no different.
In an exciting start, UTSC student newspaper The Underground hosted a debate on February 1. Shine Bright UTSC, SCSYou, and independent executive candidates took to the stage to present their platforms, answer questions, and display their smack-talk ability. Of note was the rivalry between Shine Bright UTSC’s presidential candidate, Chemi Lhamo, and SCSYou’s presidential candidate, Anup Atwal.
Atwal’s answers to debate questions reflected his solemnity and passion as a presidential candidate. Students responded positively when he addressed student issues like financial security and academics.
Atwal also took the opportunity to criticize current Director of Political Science and Vice-President Academics & University Affairs candidate Raymond Dang for proposing a motion to limit media at SCSU meetings in December. Dang later expressed some regret, claiming that he “absolutely never intended to make that policy about controlling media.”
Atwal’s criticism was well-founded. Dang’s motion was a self-caused controversy. Hopefully, his participation in the Underground-hosted debate has pushed him to better recognize the value of the campus press. Indeed, for student media to host student politicians not only better informs student voters, but also creates a positive image of student engagement and campus democracy.
However, the debate was soon followed by the issuance of demerit points. By February 5, Lhamo had received 25, while Atwal was handed enough points to be officially disqualified from elections for multiple violations, including criticisms of Dang, described in the notice as a “direct and misleading comment towards another candidate.”
But Atwal’s disqualification was not justified given the accuracy of his comments. He was right to subsequently criticize the SCSU for undermining free speech. Furthermore, given his resonance with students, especially as the Scarborough Campus Union Reform Club president, the demerit point system detracted from what could have been an exciting contest.
It more or less guaranteed the presidency to Lhamo, an establishment politician. Although independent candidate John John received 519 votes, only Atwal had presented a serious challenge to Lhamo. This likely lessened student motivation to vote and therefore the chances of other SCSYou candidates to be voted in. But the drama did not stop there.
Atwal was shrouded with even more controversy when fellow slate member Armaan Sahgal leaked a chat to The Underground. It exposed Atwal for transphobic remarks directed toward Leon Tsai, Shine Bright UTSC’s Vice-President Equity candidate. There is no doubt that this was a turning point in the election in terms of Atwal’s reputation.
Even as a candidate advocating for change in the SCSU, Atwal failed to perceive his own actions as requiring remorse and reform — for example, he has been called out for his transphobic remarks, but refuses to apologize and stands by his words. He ultimately drew much attention to the election for the wrong reasons, and his initial association with action and policy has been replaced by drama. Public opinion has justifiably turned against him.
Running for an important position of power means being responsible and accountable for one’s actions, both in public and private spheres — the ability of a student politician to conduct themselves with dignity and command the respect of voters is as important as matters of policy debate. Atwal has disregarded these responsibilities as SCSYou’s leader, and thus he has seriously compromised the quality of the election at UTSC.
But students have voted in a new SCSU executive. Although a split ticket, I hope that the executive learn to work together and overcome the election’s negativity to effectively develop policy and address student needs. Interestingly, Dang was outvoted by SCSYou candidate Carly Sahagian, whom he had called “utterly unqualified” during the debate, another comment unappreciated by students. In this sense, the election was a success: students cast informed votes based on candidates’ questionable behaviour.
But beyond policy, the SCSU must find a way to improve its own quality and legitimacy as an institution. From Atwal’s rise as a reformist candidate, to his controversial disqualification, and finally to his disgraced fall, it is clear that there is much work to be done when it comes to electoral processes and decorum.
One positive spillover is that the election was subject to intense media coverage by The Underground and The Varsity. The importance of the press for ensuring student awareness and engagement in campus politics should not be taken lightly. This sort of precedent should inspire students to better exercise their rights to vote or run for office and effect change in the future. Student participation is essential to democracy on campus.
This year’s SCSU elections have unfortunately been more dramatic than democratic. But the dissatisfying experience gives students all the more reason to care about what their politicians are doing. Hopefully, students come to understand the power of their voice, and that the SCSU is ultimately what they, the students, make of it.
Michael Phoon is a second-year Journalism student at UTSC. He is The Varsity’s UTSC Affairs Columnist.