Once again, it is time for midterm elections of the Journalists Syndicate, held every two years to elect the syndicate head and half the board members. This year’s elections will be held next Friday, 2 April. Predictably, campaigning is at its height; competitors are promoting their electoral programmes through listing either past achievements and/or promises for the future. COVID-19, however, has cast its shadow on the elections, calling for non-traditional preparations, dampening the heat of campaigning, and curtailing public gatherings. The matter has brought on some serious thoughts which I list here.
Once the court ruled that the elections may neither be cancelled nor postponed, the current syndicate board has been attempting to find ways to secure the election procedure against crowding and its attendant threat of coronavirus spread, and to ensure restrictive, protective measures are rigorously implemented. This can be no easy task. Past elections have seen massive numbers of journalists choke the marquee set up to act as an atrium in front of the syndicate building, and cram the building’s reception hall, lifts and stairways, also the polls that occupy five floors in the building. To avert such a situation this year, the syndicate board attempted to obtain a permit from the government and security authorities to have a portion of Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Street—the street on which the Journalists Syndicate stands in Downtown Cairo—closed to traffic, in order to set up a number of separate marquees to extend the place where the elections would be held, and thus reduce crowding. But no permit was granted. So the syndicate board asked the Teachers Syndicate for permission to use their premises and club to hold the journalists’ elections; the Teachers Syndicate accepted.
Despite the change of venue of the elections, it is expected that the COVID-19 threat would curtail the turnout. Many might refrain from voting for fear that, regardless of all effort, it would not be possible to observe proper distancing. I am fully aware that extraordinary situations call for innovative answers. In this case, the balloting might have been conducted electronically; or the journalists might have been divided into separate groups based on their membership numbers for each group to go to the polls on a different day. But I am also aware that the legislation governing elections might not allow for such measures.
Journalists could not have failed to observe that candidates have been campaigning for the elections this year in the time honoured, traditional manner. They insisted on visiting in person the premises of various papers—Watani has been privileged with a number of such visits—to meet the journalists there, present their programmes, and answer all questions. They handed the journalists leaflets citing their qualifications and listing their programmes. Even though this was a time tested method of campaigning, I could not but wonder how it was that these candidates could not see that they needed new methods for a changed time. During their visits to us they were met by only a few reporters who happened to be at the office; the others were all working online from home, a system we have implemented ever since COVID-19 became the dire threat that it is. Nonetheless, we welcomed our visitors and promised we would post images of their leaflets on our social media group for all who were not present to see.
With the experience of years of Journalists Syndicate elections behind me, I have had persistent concerns regarding the election process. I wrote about them before, but will write again here, hoping we would one day rectify them to attain more mature elections that would serve journalists and their profession.
First, the regulations governing elections for professional syndicates limit the options to electing individual candidates. No slate system is allowed, nor may homogeneous blocs of candidates run on a list. This means that candidates campaign individually on their separate specific platforms. We are here before a double conundrum: voters may have to choose trusted candidates that have different outlooks; and the syndicate board might very well be staffed with members who hold contradictory or conflicting programmes; each was voted in based on that programme and thus has an obligation to fulfil it. The outcome would be a divided, ineffective board.
Second: With competition restricted to individual candidates, it is no surprise that each should attempt to maximise the chance of winning by promising multiple services to benefit journalists. The focus thus becomes the direct benefit to voters, not the measures direly needed to advance and promote the profession and professionals. Such a focus is bound to reflect on the performance of the elected board.
Third: Until now, no syndicate board ever took a decision to ban the multitude of propaganda posters glued to the walls of the syndicate building on election day, nor the hysterical distribution of leaflets to voters as they head to the polls. The voters end up casting thousands of these leaflets on the floor where they are trodden by the crowds. At the end of the day, the place is entirely unsightly and the waste humongous. This year, the Teachers Syndicate has generously accepted to host our elections; will we refrain from such appalling behaviour in respect for our hosts?
26 March 2021