In the students' union: A passport to politics?

It’s a familiar stepping stone into politics: many MPs, party executives and other apparatchiks share a history of KSU activism and are usually Nationalist… TIM DIACONO tries to find out why

Shirt, ties and high heels... the current KSU crop: Ryan Falzon, president Gayle Lynn Clauss, and Rebecca Micallef
Shirt, ties and high heels... the current KSU crop: Ryan Falzon, president Gayle Lynn Clauss, and Rebecca Micallef
Leaders of tomorrow: 1996, from left: Deborah Schembri (Labour MP), Cyrus Engerer, Nationalist councillor turned Labour candidate; Alexis Callus, formerly a PN deputy mayor, and then-KSU president Manuel Delia, later head of Austin Gatt’s secretariat
Leaders of tomorrow: 1996, from left: Deborah Schembri (Labour MP), Cyrus Engerer, Nationalist councillor turned Labour candidate; Alexis Callus, formerly a PN deputy mayor, and then-KSU president Manuel Delia, later head of Austin Gatt’s secretariat

Many of them have been involved in politics from a young age. Few have tried their hand at militating outside the party structure in ‘radical’ or environmental NGOs. When it comes to student leaders who find themselves in the belly of government, or even as MPs and ministers, there is one common denominator: the University Students’ Council or as it is more commonly known by its Maltese abbreviation, the KSU (Kunsill Studenti Università).

A complete list of KSU members since its formation reveals the extent to which former student council members launched themselves into a political career. Most prominent among them is Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil, who spent two years as a member of the KSU during the early 1990s. Elsewhere, Nationalist MPs George Pullicino, Claudette Buttigieg, Marthese Portelli and Francis Zammit Dimech all cut their political teeth in the students’ council, as did Alternattiva Demokrattika’s deputy chairperson, Carmel Cacopardo, and auxiliary bishop Charles Scicluna.

Further back in time, former Prime Ministers Sir Ugo Mifsud, George Borg Olivier and Dominic Mintoff, former President Guido de Marco, former foreign minister Alex Sceberras Trigona and former tourism minister Michael Refalo were all members of the students’ council. Indeed, Borg Olivier and Mintoff were actually members of the same students’ council for two consecutive years.

“There is no question that my involvement in the KSU helped me acquire a more complete formation during my formative years at the University,” Simon Busuttil told MaltaToday. “The KSU builds in you a strong sense of active citizenship. It was an experience that I have treasured throughout my adult life.”

It’s not just political leaders who trace back their pedigree: Austin Gatt’s right-hand man, Emanuel Delia led the student protests against stipend cuts in 1997 with future Labour MP Deborah Schembri by his side; PN lawyer Joseph Zammit Maempel was a member of the 1966 committee; so was historian Henry Frendo in 1967, together with notary Victor Bisazza and Nationalist minister Michael Frendo, and European Court of Justice judge Anthony Borg Barthet (formerly Attorney General)

Many were those KSU members who even before graduating, had one foot in the world of politics or even party journalism. And it is easy to establish that having a firm opinion about anything is probably also the reason why someone would run for KSU election. Organisational skills, dabbling in budgets, attending meetings with university top brass, assisting students, hunting down sponsorships, fighting unpopular government decisions: many KSU members are equipped with the kind of skill someone in government will look for.

‘Party of students’

But it’s not only the glut of former KSU members in parties and government that is apparent; many political candidates spent some time at university as members of a party-affiliated body, mainly Pulse and Studenti Demokristjani Maltin, the latter a successful electoral vehicle that has always triumphed in the KSU elections.

Even with the low turnouts on campus, the ‘Nationalists’ at university have held sway over student politics for decades, while Labour students have been unsuccessful at clinching KSU posts, perhaps suffering from the hangover of the relationship between intellectuals and the Labour government of the 1980s; perhaps, kept out due to the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Labour candidate Ivan Buttigieg, who in 1997 co-founded the student organisation Pulse – like SDM, loosely-affiliated to a political party, in this case Labour, claims university students have been afraid of declaring their support for the Labour Party, explaining why SDM has never lost a single university students’ council (KSU) election.

“The connection between the Nationalist Party and SDM exists in terms of their shared Christian democrat ideologies, just as the connection between Labour and Pulse exists in terms of their shared socialist ideologies,” Buttigieg said. “I believe that the situation at the university reflects the political situation in Malta on a micro-level. Now that Labour have managed to mobilise the youth, it will be interesting to see whether Pulse can manage to get elected to the KSU in future.”

And yet, while Labour has maintained healthy polls ever since the election of Joseph Muscat as leader, this support rarely gets reflected on the university campus. In March 2014, the PN enjoyed a seven-point lead over the PL among university-educated voters; Labour however enjoyed a massive nine-point lead over the PN among 18- to 34-year-olds. And again, SDM triumphed in the 2014 KSU elections and actually obtained 4% more votes than they received the previous year. The indication is that, despite its recent woes, the ‘Nationalist’ SDM has somehow managed to maintain its popularity among current university students.

Former Pulse president Corey Greenland, until recently a deputy secretary-general of the General Workers Union, says the reason is down to having more Nationalist voters at university, perhaps hinting indirectly at the slow uptake of tertiary education by more working-class students from traditionally Labour backgrounds.

Jesmond Saliba, a former KSU secretary-general who spent years as a communications coordinator for former PN minister Austin Gatt, has a similar theory.  

“SDM candidates have always seemed to enjoy more support in view of the fact that SDM has a set of centre-right principles that are identifiable with the Nationalist Party. The Nationalist Party has historically enjoyed more support among university students.”  

Matthew Agius, president of the Nationalist Youth movement (MZPN) and KSU’s ex-secretary general, believes he has the answer.

“It is crystal clear to me that the Nationalist Party is the party that has worked most in favour of students over the years through their heavy investment in education,” Agius said. “Look at the current Labour government on the other hand. Although it has slightly increased stipends, it has also raised MATSEC examination fees, putting money in one pocket and taking it out of another.

“KSU members grow to love student representation and therefore find it easier to identify with the PN.”

Political breeding ground

A former social policy coordinator for the KSU, today journalist turned PN spokesperson Matthew Bonett believes that SDM’s repeated electoral victories are not politically related.

“SDM continuously churn out better electoral programmes than Pulse and students can see that they have a good track record in KSU. I know students who voted for both Labour and SDM and others who voted for both the PN and Pulse.”

Another former KSU education commissioner, Marsaxlokk councillor (PN) Angelo Micallef, agrees. “Students vote according to the electoral manifestos and track records of the organisations. It seems as though SDM has always outperformed Pulse in these two criteria. With Labour in government now, students still preferred SDM.” 

The current KSU executive also appears to keep a cautious distance from the political aspect of the students’ council.

“I don’t see KSU as a platform for a political career,” KSU president Gayle Lynn Callus said. “In reality, the people we speak to and the issues we speak about are all education-related. There are better political platforms others can seek, such as local councils.”    

“I see KSU as an opportunity for me to bring about change, especially in relation to social policy,” KSU social policy commissioner Rebecca Micallef said. “The trend is that the most active students on campus get involved in student organisations or KSU. It is usually these active students who show enthusiasm at a micro-level who then proceed to greater projects and hence get involved in politics.”

Philosophy lecturer Jean Paul de Lucca, who was elected to the post of KSU education commissioner from among the student representatives of University boards and not as part of either SDM or Pulse, admits that the motivation of some of those who join the KSU is sometimes worrying.

“I do have problems with people who use the KSU to further interests and agendas that are not its own. KSU executive members should completely suspend their involvement in political parties and organisations during their tenure, if anything out of respect toward the institution they form part of.

“The KSU should not be, and should not be perceived as, some sort of proxy battlefield or launch pad for national politics. It should promote broad participation and representation which is not reducible to party politics. Student politics are not the monopoly of party politics. Should this be the case, then students end up being misrepresented.”

Yet former KSU president Jacques Rene Zammit, a key player in the introduction of the KSU’s controversial first-past-the-post electoral system back in the 1990s, insists that the student council has indeed become as much a stepladder to politics as local councils. 

“Political parties have found an ideal way to nurture careers through SDM and Pulse, but nobody will admit this hand on heart,” Zammit said. “I would like to think that university students vote with their minds and not according to national party lines but I imagine that a good 80% do so for the latter reason.”

However, he refused to pin SDM’s uninterrupted successes on just one specific reason.

“The theory that university Labour sympathisers are scared to admit so is rubbish – if they are scared now, when will they not be? You can’t pin it down to there being more Nationalist voters at university either, when only around 30% of students even bother to vote in the KSU elections at all. 

“It’s more likely that SDM have a stronger pull towards students than Pulse. SDM have a strong record in KSU and there is always safety in the know. On the other hand, Pulse have had some hopeless proposals over the years, such as to install jukeboxes in every corner on campus.”