From 14 to 16 March, municipalities all over the Netherlands call their residents to the polls to elect their municipal councils for the next four years. Unlike in national elections, many non-Dutch citizens are able to vote as well. In Maastricht, this means that several thousand international students can cast their vote on matters like housing, transportation, education, and cultural life. These are all determining issues for the students living here. But once again, the elections highlight the love-hate relationship of university and municipality, as not all too many students seem to know or care about their right to vote and the options available on the ballot.
Who is to bridge the gap between university and municipality if not our very own ‘uni-cipality’ (pardon the pun) – those elected to represent the students of Maastricht on the University Council. Ten students from five parties are advising the University Executive Board and are fighting for student interests at university level. Since the student elections in May 2021, the Council had to steer the university through the complete closing and re-opening of the campus and an extreme shortage of living space for students.
The Maastricht Diplomat reached out to the student political parties present on the University Council as well as to the Maastricht Student Union (MSU) and asked for their opinions about what drives ‘uni-cipal’ politics and how they get involved in the local elections. Out of the seven organisations that we contacted, four shared their thoughts with us. Next to the MSU, these are Maastricht’s self-proclaimed progressive student party NovUM, the oldest and largest student party DOPE, and the KAN Party, affiliated with the Climate Action Network (KAN).
All parties agreed that university and municipal politics overlap in some areas and here they especially pointed to housing policy, which has been a major source of controversy for years. However, the disagreement starts at the degree of integration between university and municipality.
The MSU, by their mission statement the closest to what’s going on in the town hall, see “many campaigns brought forth in municipal politics mirrored in student politics”. They observe that student interest in the municipal elections is growing, with more and more information about the elections catered to students and a number of events related to the elections planned by student associations. The MSU themselves “had planned a debate between the electoral parties but have unfortunately just cancelled it due to an increasing number of health concerns”.
Like the MSU, NovUM points out how associations especially in the international community take on the task to inform students about the elections, even though they lament the general feeling that “municipal policies come off as obscure and not necessary for students to take part in”. NovUM holds the students themselves “responsible for taking the steps to find information and participate in discussions about politics”, but also demands more action from the university and the municipality to make local politics more accessible to students, for instance through “observatory seats for student party representatives in relevant meetings”.
Among the four associations, NovUM is the only one that held an event directly related to the elections. Together with Volt Maastricht, one of the parties running in the elections, they hosted an informational evening at Café Forum “to spread information and awareness about the rights of international students in the elections and the causes that can be found on the municipal political agenda.” With this, NovUM appears to make a move to tap into the “unexplored potential for a merge of interests between student and municipal elections and politics”. But despite their ties with Volt, NovUM declined to officially endorse the party for the municipal elections and instead will focus on the student elections scheduled for May.
So will the student party DOPE which “concerns itself with the mechanisms and issues within Maastricht University and its students”. More than the other parties, DOPE represents the Dutch students of Maastricht, which is reflected in their position on the municipal elections. Among its members, DOPE observes a high interest in national politics, but less so in local politics. They ascribe this to the tendency of students to leave Maastricht right after their studies and thus to lack the motivation to get involved in the city, especially international students who “often don’t speak Dutch, have no in-depth knowledge of how the Dutch political system operates and have not oriented themselves towards specific parties.” Perspectives diverge though between the Dutch and the international student parties, made clear by NovUM: “Our party has limited interaction with Dutch students, but our impression is that the engagement is based less on nationality and more on affiliation with the student community.”
Unlike the other parties, DOPE also doesn’t observe a growing interest in local politics among students. The events organised in the international student community seem to have no parallel in the Dutch student community, which DOPE puts down to a reluctance among student associations to take a political stance. Even though DOPE admits that associations could “promote voting in general”, they don’t see themselves in the position to do so: “We have always stayed out of politics to maintain our diversity as a party and have therefore never put much thought in promoting municipal elections.” This is also in line with the party who have made it a point to focus primarily on promoting quality of education at the university first, and being a student party that tries to form connections both at local level and with other student parties all over the Netherlands.
Quite the opposite approach is taken by the KAN Party. Although KAN, too, “does not endorse a specific party”, their political commitment to climate and social justice is in the name. The organisations forming the KAN Network organised a climate march on Saturday “ to highlight the importance of tackling the Climate Crisis on a local level”. KAN regrets the language barrier that international students face, but considers political engagement an opportunity to “build bridges and also bring ‘locals’ and students together through caring about a similar topic”, a point at last on which all three parties and the MSU agree.
Most information about the elections is available in English on the municipality website, including the Stemwijzer, a quiz to compare your political positions with those of the parties. Maastricht made national headlines for holding its election debate in English on News in English. In addition, the UNSA and JEF Maastricht have hosted a panel discussion about the elections specifically addressed to international students. Still having doubts? Check out Alodia's piece on what the candidates for the municipal council think about the student vote!
A long way remains to go until our small city will truly feel one, but next week we have the opportunity to take one step ahead. If you are an EU citizen or have been registered in the Netherlands for five years, take your chance and go vote!