An interregnum, the period of discontinuity between an incumbent government or social order and the next, provides an interesting study of the social effects attributable to the loss of order. In societies where political power is heavily centralised, a smooth succession has been perceived as imperative for the maintenance of the polity. The potential for social instability, political division or military weakness in relation to external polities are substantially heightened during the transition of power and must in this regard be properly managed.

An interesting example of a modern interregnum would be the period lasting from February 1990 to May 1994 in South Africa. This was the timeframe in which some of the most significant and publicised political events took place that would change the state from one being ruled by a mono-racial minority to a multi-racial majority. Most notably the release of Nelson Mandela on the 11th February 1990 and his assumption of the office of South African President on the 10th May 1994. Below is a time series of recorded political fatalities on a monthly basis from January 1985 to December 1996. Data is available for a  61 month period preceding the interregnum and a 31 month period succeeding it. During the pre-interregnum average casualties reached 92 per month, during the interregnum an average monthly rate of 288 was recorded, an increase of 214%. During the post-interregnum period monthly casualties dropped to 81, a rate lower than the one recorded during minority rule. However when combining the pre-and post periods and comparing it with the interregnum one notices that during the transition period political casualties increased by 227% or 200 persons more per month. Prolonged interregnums clearly carry high social costs and efforts should be made in ensuring a rapid and stable succession.



About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE.
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