Transition to democracy: the Philippine experience | Inquirer Business
MAPping the Future

Transition to democracy: the Philippine experience

The Philippines went through its transition from a dictatorship to an open democratic society in 1986. The road of transition has not been easy; it has not been short.

It is important to acknowledge the difficulties and the long time horizon needed for the required reforms to take root and finally make a positive difference.

Immediate aftermath of a dictatorship


While the major forces behind the “people power” revolution were united by their revulsion of a dictatorship and their commitment to democracy, immediately below these headline ideals were deep rifts: a few were more “left-oriented,” while others were more deeply committed to the “right.” This division presented enormous challenges to governing and managing the transition.


A key institution—the military—which had been badly corrupted by the dictatorship, and which nonetheless played a key role in the final stage of the “people power” revolution, insisted on its “rights” and prerogatives. It made several serious attempts at “military adventurism.”

In various other sectors, many important institutions were left in a failed, perilously weak state. Key state financial institutions were bankrupt and in serious need of rehabilitation. Virtually all segments of the economy were overregulated and tied up in bureaucratic knots. The media, long suppressed, in the flush of the new freedom they enjoyed, insisted on rights and privileges without the corresponding restraint from a sense of duty and social responsibility.


The underlying culture in society had been seriously flawed after a couple of decades of dictatorship. After the euphoria of bringing back the trappings of a democratic state had died down, distrust of government was widespread; suspicion of wrongdoing in public offices was high; moreover, even with the “new people” getting into government, there were more than enough instances to deepen the distrust and substantiate the suspicion.

Moreover, the economy was left in a poor, weak state. Public debt was high and rising. Foreign debt felt like a millstone around the neck of the economy. Infrastructure had been left in a state of disrepair and was woefully inadequate. Many assets were in government hands, and most of those were in an unproductive condition, often left to rot (while the servicing of the debts behind those assets had to continue).

The road of transition

A generally shared commitment to democracy provided the common thread behind all the many initiatives under the transition. This provided the fundamental framework for all the strategies and major policies that the transition government pursued in various fields. In the case of the Philippines, we had the blessing of an icon of democracy, who headed the transition government, and who was very broadly trusted: President Cory Aquino, who had her mind and heart in the right place. In an open democratic society, however, there were more than a few loud critics, who could now use the free press to ventilate their criticisms openly (and in more than enough instances, irresponsibly).

a) In the political sector, democracy meant deep respect and due observance of the rule of law. A new Constitution had to be written and ratified in a plebiscite. Consequently, all the branches of government—the executive, legislative and judicial—derived their power and legitimacy under that Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of the press and a fundamental set of human rights. Decentralization of executive and legislative power was secured through the effective operationalization of local autonomy.

b) In the economic sector, democracy meant liberalization and the opening up of the economy. Trade and tariff reforms were introduced, removing virtually all quantitative restrictions on imports and radically slashing down protective tariffs. All unnecessary controls were removed, as for instance in the foreign exchange segment of the economy. Privatization of a significant percentage of assets under government control was pursued. The few state financial institutions that had to remain in government hands were rehabilitated. Public finances were put in order, with the public deficits eventually turned into (at least a temporary) surplus. Foreign debt was restructured and dutifully paid under an internationally sponsored and supported program. A free enterprise regime was made to flourish (the foreign debt of the private sector was restructured under government-negotiated terms and conditions with foreign creditors, with virtually all of the gains accruing to the business sector). The Philippine economy was able to eventually re-enter the world’s financial markets.

c) In the social sphere, democracy meant citizen participation. Nongovernmental organizations were encouraged and allowed to proliferate. Civil society was made to thrive without government pulling the strings behind it. A land reform law was decreed: this broke up large landholdings for distribution to the farmer-tillers, with due compensation to the previous landowners. Universal education up to high school was provided for. Media were given free rein to help shape public opinion and to assist in the fiscalization of official government actions and programs.

All the above strategic initiatives, which helped give flesh and substance to democracy even during the early years of transition (1986-1992), were undertaken after considerable debate, and often with reasonable delay.

Moreover, their execution was far from fault-free; and those failings were all too often magnified and exaggerated by sensationalism (on the part of opposition politicians and the media). Nonetheless, under the impetus of the democratic ideal, the basic strategic directions were clearly set and tenaciously pursued.

Fundamental challenges

a) Four presidencies have since succeeded the initial transition presidency (of Cory Aquino, 1986-1992). Fidel Ramos was elected in 1992 and served a full term until 1998. Erap Estrada was elected in 1998 and served up to early 2001 (he was removed from office during an impeachment proceeding in Congress). Gloria Arroyo, being vice president, became president in 2001 and was elected to a term of her own in 2004. Benigno Aquino III was elected in 2010. The Constitutionally mandated process of succession through election (or as in the case of Arroyo, by succession on the part of the vice president) has been dutifully observed: it looks entrenched.

b) All the basic strategic directions, already laid down and set forth during the initial period of transition, have largely been followed by all the succeeding presidencies. Nonetheless, fundamental challenges continue: corruption has been a perennial issue (it never seems to go away, and from the discussion in the press, the issue keeps getting bigger); most government institutions have remained weak, often overly constrained by limited resources and other bureaucratic rules and regulations; infrastructure and public services continue being woefully inadequate; poor governance remains a challenge at all levels. Comparative rankings in competitiveness, corruption, ease of doing business, and corporate governance show the Philippines at the bottom quartile in Asia and the world.

The transition from a dictatorship to a democracy, over 25 years, has certainly brought the Philippines forward: it has enjoyed enormous gains from following the initial strategic directions of the transition, inspired by the ideals of democracy. But even after 25 years of pursuing the same strategic directions, the vestiges of corruption, bad governance and a flawed civic culture continue to present enormous challenges, which the Philippines must now confront.

Reflections on the road ahead

Democracy sets very clear strategic directions; but these directions are not enough. They need to be substantiated by an equally clear set of strategic priorities, which need to be pursued vigorously and systematically every six or so years: These priorities need to be translated into, and concretized by, a portfolio of initiatives, each of which should have measures and targets of performance every year within each six-year period. In this manner, we bring democracy from its ideal heights and bring it to bear upon the performance we need to deliver every year, and the targets we need to meet every year, or even every quarter of each year. Democracy imposes a concrete, specific, time-bound discipline of performance.

Furthermore, the deep-seated vestiges of corruption, bad governance and a flawed civic culture would need to be confronted: the ax has to be laid at their roots. We can do so by installing and constantly nurturing a culture of good governance and responsible citizenship. This may have to be done one national government agency at a time; and one local government unit at a time. It also has to be complemented by infusing that culture at all levels: at the level of every institution (e.g. the families, the schools, the business enterprises) and of every civil society organization. In the end, that culture must permeate down to the last individual. After all, democracy is by the people, for the people, and of the people. It has to start with and end with individuals and all the institutions they forge and set up.

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(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. This was lifted from a speech delivered by the author during a recent International Forum in Istanbul organized by the Center for International Private Enterprise. The author is chairman of the Institute of Corporate Directors and the MAP Management Man of the Year 2009 awardee. Feedback at [email protected]. For previous articles, visit

TAGS: democracy, history, Philippines

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