From Côte d'Ivoire to Myanmar, Tanzania to Georgia, Bolivia to Jordan, Moldova, the U.S. and beyond, in recent weeks, elections across the globe have highlighted the importance of peaceful transitions. A pivotal moment of the democratic process, peaceful transitions signal a government’s commitment to respect the people’s will in electing their next leader. Smooth transitions not only support government sustainability and national security during a leadership handover, but they also mark the moment when candidates build on collective momentum created by an election to transform their visions into government action.
Successful transitions are highly dependent on the circumstances surrounding an election, in addition to a country’s political structure and legal frameworks. They are also typically marked by preparations beginning in the months leading up to an election, and following a leader’s first months in office.
In presidential systems, official candidates begin transition planning several months before Election Day. Candidate transition teams are focused on planning for presidential appointments and executive leadership staffing; reviewing ongoing national policies, priorities and agency or ministerial needs; and formulating plans to translate campaign promises into concrete policies and action. Incumbent candidates also form transition teams, though their focus differs slightly with more emphasis on potential staffing changes in the cabinet, and key policy shifts (or continuations). In parliamentary systems, there is often less time for a candidate to prepare for the shift. Instead, the government’s civil service spends several weeks preparing handover memos and briefing materials, and conducting reviews of agencies and departments, which are then shared with the incoming leader following their swearing-in. Civil servants in both structures provide foundational support by maintaining and managing records, tracking assets, overseeing personnel shifts (political/career) and coordinating official responsibilities.
Depending on the results of an election, candidates-turned-leaders-elect often ramp up their transition operations significantly following Election Day. With just a few weeks between an election and the inauguration, leaders-elect must use every bit of this time to make key staffing decisions, articulate policy priorities and plan for potential political appointments should their structure require.
Throughout the transition process, candidates, transition teams, and the incumbent government must cooperate and comply with legal frameworks to ensure official candidates and eventually the leader-elect has the necessary resources to effectively assume their official duties from the first day. In the post-election period, outgoing and incoming leaders must come together early and often to discuss high priority issues such as national security, which is likely to require regular confidential briefings and expedited security clearances. Countless global examples demonstrate that leaders who make effective use of the time in the months between the election and inauguration to exchange information experience a more successful transfer overall. In contexts where the unsuccessful candidate undermines legal election results, delays in the transition process can threaten sustainable public service delivery and citizen and national security.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has long supported peaceful and smooth transitions of executive power following democratic elections internationally. With generous support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and others, NDI has worked across the globe to support executive transitions at every stage of the process. For example, NDI has provided resources to candidate and leader-elect transition teams, and supported post-inaugural executive office development. The Institute has also supported candidates and leaders in developing sound internal and external communications strategies, intergovernmental coordination mechanisms and executive office plans. Additionally, NDI has provided training for executive leadership staff and civil service, and offered guidance to policymakers on the development of sound legal frameworks that codify transition timelines, resources, and powers/privileges of transition actors.
NDI’s work on transitions aims to advance good governance in the process of democratic consolidation through dedicated guidance via its established Transitions Community of Practice. Specifically, the Institute connects former leaders, chiefs of staff, senior advisors and transition experts with newly elected and appointed officials in transition contexts. NDI has also developed a transitions website resource center, which catalogues an ever-growing global set of resources on transition mechanics. Further, the Institute is in the process of developing a comprehensive transition toolkit, which will detail transition and executive office development technicalities in presidential, parliamentary and post-conflict contexts.
Smooth leadership transitions are a cornerstone of the democratic process. As the next step following a democratic election, a well-run and effective transfer of power not only cements the legacy of the outgoing leader, but also helps the incoming government more swiftly and effectively assume the mantle required to serve the people.
Written by Frieda Arenos, Senior Program Manager for Global Governance Programs, NDI