The Global Transfer of Democracy: Transition in the Philippines

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WHTP takes a look at the Philippines’ fifth democratic transition
By: Emma Barnes

Last week, on June 30, President Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as the new President of the Philippines. A member of the leftist PDP-Laban Party, he is a former mayor of Davao City, in Mindanao – a southern island known for its turbulence. President Duterte vowed no tolerance for crime and corruption, [1] though banned independent press from the ceremony (which was, however, streamed on Facebook Live from the Malacanang Palace). This continues his strained and purposefully limited relationship with the media, recently punctuated by comments that Filipino journalists killed on the job were corrupt.

June 30 also marked the exit of President Beningo Aquino III, chair of the rival, centrist Liberal Party and who comes from Manila and generations of political leadership.

In fact, it was President Beningo Aquino’s mother, former President Corazon Aquino, who in 1992 oversaw the Philippines’ first democratic transition since the departure of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. She set a precedent for key tactics: naming a transition team, coordinating reports from executive departments for her successor and then meeting with that team, and relying on institutional knowledge from a Career Executive Service Board; in all, creating a “sprit of reconciliation.”

For those watching the U.S. presidential election, this may sound familiar. President Corazon Aquino had drawn on U.S. practices when shaping her exit. [2] Unfortunately, however, these measures have struggled to achieve permanence without a budget or governing legislation – two core tenets of the U.S. transition. Indeed, the General Services Administration will open its office to both candidates on August 1, a small part of its transition duties. And just this spring, on March 28, President Obama signed an updated transition bill that increases support for major party candidates.

Among the many resource and structural differences facing the Philippines and the U.S. transitions, interesting factors include:

Filipino Presidents have been term-limited to one six-year administration since 1987; transition is inevitable. In the U.S., presidents consistently seek reelection to a second term, making for an uncertain mandate to transition at the end of a first term.

Official transition windows vary in length. The Philippines inaugurates its new president on the June 30 following early May elections. That allows the incoming president about 50 days of ‘official’ preparation, in contrast to the U.S.’ almost 80-day window.

Filipino Vice Presidents are elected on a separate ballot, enabling multi-party leadership in the executive. Indeed, the Liberal Party’s Leni Robredo, a human rights lawyer, was also just inaugurated to the role in a separate ceremony in Metro Manila. Vice President Robredo’s transition team has forged its own strikingly friendly relationship with the outgoing Office of the Vice President. While incoming U.S. vice presidents have their own staff, the operation is within and under that of the president.

How did this year’s transition go? From a distance, it appears that both sides have followed certain basic protocols. President Duterte began forming a transition team as election counts were underway and soon followed-up by announcing articulated policy roles. Two days later, the he announced a clear platform – an eight-point economic plan. Meanwhile, President Beningo Aquino assigned his own transition chair, and later called President Duterte to offer his administration’s support, even beyond the inauguration. The two leaders are reported to have met the day after the elections, two weeks before the inauguration and that day. Press team meetings are cited as meeting to discuss communications on June 6 and June 20.

We know that transitions rely on the personal commitment of each president and key staff – something seen in the Philippines in 1992, and most notably in the U.S.’ Bush Administration departure in 2008. Time will tell more about the substance of President Duterte’s transition into office and its efficacy in mitigating early mishaps and lapses in governance.


[Unrelated note – a sentence I wrote but didn’t fit, unless we want to mention the U.S. assistance in the Philippines around its democratic transition]

The U.S. has close official ties with the Philippines. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the military bond a “cornerstone” of Southeast Asian stability. [3] The U.S. is also the Philippines’ top trading partner and foreign investor.


[1] Such remarks, however, have not restored hope for short-term rule of law, as detailed by organizations including the UN and myriad news organizations (see The New York Times, Associated Press, The Economist, The Guardian and BBC).

[2] Robert Joyce. A Tense Handover: The 2010 Presidential Transition in the Philippines. Princeton University.  2015.

[3] Echoing similar remarks by President Obama – whose rebalance to Asia put the Philippines front-and-center.