A fishy story

IN a paper written for the United Nations Development Programme Asia-Pacific Regional Centre, the concept of “democratic space” was defined as referring “to the arena that exists between the state and the individual in which people interact to hold the state accountable, shape public debate, participate in politics, and express their needs and opinions. It can only be deemed to be democratic when it is underpinned by the values of liberal democracy, such as individual autonomy, political freedom, representative leadership, accountable governance and respect for human rights [Horner, Puddephatt, 2011].”

To simplify, imagine a fishbowl with fish in it. The bowl itself represents the state, with all its governmental authority and power. With the fish representing the people, the water stands for democratic space. In that water, the fish can swim peacefully, contemplating their fishy existence, with the only real restriction being the glass walls of the bowl. Or they can be not peaceable at all. Instead of introspective fish, you could have adventurous guppies, exploring in and around the plastic water plants, encouraging other fish to protest the levels of chlorination in the water. You could also have an ambitious goldfish taking over the fake castles and promising the peasant fishes all the fishfood they can eat. The fish can do all that and more, in the water—their democratic space—without worrying that the bowl would object.

Since the only limitation on these fishy endeavors and dreams is the bowl itself, it follows that a larger bowl would mean more democratic space; more democratic space means more fishes can have the freedom to do whatever they want, even if what they want to do is to rant against the walls of the bowl. The opposite, of course, is true. The smaller the bowl, the less space there is for the fishes to pursue their goals and aspirations, not to mention their protests against the bowl.

Earlier this week, it was reported the military top brass had said that the Philippines “enjoys so much democratic space that is being exploited by terror groups and also criminal groups”. Naturally, the police agreed; and at that moment, somewhere in that fish bowl, some fishes trembled.

Whenever someone notes that you have “so much” of something, there is simply no escaping the implication that so much might soon be considered synonymous with “too much”; and when you have too much, that it will then be taken away. What’s a fish to do?

Well, a fish could point out that the solution to so much democratic space is, most emphatically, not less democratic space but more vigilance—better utilization of the tools and resources that are available for fighting terrorism, for instance—and greater effort directed at solving fundamental problems like widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, a glacial justice system and social inequality.

And, of course, a fish would argue that rather than even considering lessening the democratic space, there should be even more democratic discourse that de-stigmatizes dissent, encourages principled participation and, yes, less chlorination in the water.