Fierce protests have rocked the University of Queensland’s St Lucia campus after the ruling Liberal clique changed regulations to ensure this week’s union election was a one-horse race.

Right-wing office bearers led by UQU president Colin Finke passed secret alterations to union regulations that allowed opposition groups to maintain their name for 10 years. The change effectively means that every group aside from Fresh has been disqualified before a ballot has even been cast.

Rival tickets only discovered that nominations opened last week for the poll, and had just four days to put together their pitch. But when left-leaning opposition ticket Pulse scrambled to register its slate of 25 candidates, it found — after nominations had closed — that “Pulse” and a grab-bag of other names had already been registered by Young Liberal-National Party members aligned to Finke’s Fresh. Pulse candidates were forced to run as independents below the line but many have now withdrawn in protest.

Young Liberal and LNP forces have controlled the $16 million UQ union since 2008. It is a conservative island amid a sea of left-leaning student unions across the country and receives millions in funding each year from the university to pay the salaries of its elected office bearers.

Current vice president Rohan Watt is Fresh’s presidential candidate for the $36,000-a-year sinecure, however much of the back room machinations are believed to have been carried out by long-running secretary, and campus Liberal Club president, Brodie Thompson. Watt was pitted against Pulse’s Abraham O’Neill for the top job.

The election’s returning officer, Alexa Faros-Dowling, is a Caboolture gym manager. According to Pulse vice presidential candidate Gianni Sottile, Faros-Dowling ruled his ticket had been rejected because of the changes passed at a UQ union council meeting on August 10 (read Thompson and Finke’s motion in the agenda here). It altered the “10-year rule” to a new system to protect a name from being used. The new form can be submitted before nominations are called and unbeknown to their rivals, Fresh acolytes had already swooped.

Sottile slammed the sequence of events as “an illegitimate process … I think they’re institutionally corrupt”. He says yesterday’s protest is merely a forerunner and says the campus is building to a mass convergence next Wednesday. Sottile says the university’s administration”has taken an interest, and we really hope that they do act”.

When Crikey called Finke to seek comment yesterday the phone answerer’s voice could not be heard over the shouts of aggrieved activists. He ignored a request for comment.

Each year the union elects paid and unpaid candidates to positions including president, secretary, treasurer, six vice presidents, union council and other unpaid office bearers. Elected students are meant to serve the campus’ 40,000 students and oversee more that 120 clubs and societies at Queensland’s oldest and most respected institution of higher learning.

University Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Professor Mick McManus told Crikey the “UQ Union represents student interests as a separate entity from The University of Queensland, which is right and proper”.

“The University is concerned to ensure that issues having a significant impact on its students are considered in full and addressed appropriately. The University takes all student complaints seriously, and will be working to resolve these matters with the individuals involved, and with UQU,” he said.

The rough and tumble of the UQU sandpit has been a training ground to some of Australia’s most prominent politicians, including former Queensland premier Anna Bligh. Wyatt Roy once ran for arts councillor, and others from the Fresh era have gone on to work for senior state and federal MPs.

Controversy has dogged UQ Union elections in the past. Crikey has been told that last year ballot boxes were “locked” in a room over the weekend before counting. When other ticket scrutineers rocked up on the Monday morning, boxes had been opened and ballots “sorted” and bundled prior to their arrival.

But Fresh’s reign is a beacon to numerous coalition MPs. During last year’s debate over voluntary student unionism, Queensland Senator Brett Mason praised UQU for its “thriving student life”.

George Brandis, a former UQ student, was even more aggressive, saying Pulse should be renamed “Stale”. “As I said, this is the fifth year in a row — five out of five — since freedom was introduced at the University of Queensland Student Union, that the Fresh team were overwhelmingly endorsed by the student body,” he gloated.

Last year, Brandis offered a summary of the 2011 Liberal landslide, remarking that “a more comprehensive slaughter of the forces of compulsion by the forces of freedom could scarcely be imagined”. The Senator’s media officer is 2009 Fresh secretary Luke Walker.

Fresh’s dubious tactics recall a similar incident at the University of Melbourne in 2002 when left-wing activists were forced to change their name by deed poll after a ruling that only clubs affiliated to the student union could run in elections. The clubs had been secretly disaffiliated by Labor Right forces.