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  • The Role of Interim Governments
  • Yossi Shain (bio) and Juan J. Linz (bio)

In the last decade, transitions from authoritarian and posttotalitarian rule to democracy have become a leading topic among students of democracy. Scholars and activists alike have reflected on the decline of dictatorships, the various paths that democratic regime change can take, and the ways in which new democracies can be consolidated. Although many case studies and theoretical works deal with democratic transitions, relatively little attention has thus far been paid to the role of interim or provisional governments in the attainment of democratic rule.1 This shortcoming needs to be remedied, for the character and actions of interim administrations can have profound consequences for the course and outcome of the transition process, the character of the new regime, and its future stability.

Interim governments may affect 1) the constitutional framework and the nature of the future political system; 2) the degree of political openness in the future democracy, its respect for human rights, and its willingness to eradicate the vestiges of the old regime; 3) the nature of the economy (capitalist or socialist); 4) the role of certain key institutions, especially the armed forces, in the new society; and 5) the country's future international posture and alliances. Yet all interim administrations lack a democratic mandate until free and contested elections are held and a popularly chosen government assumes power. [End Page 73]

The problem of who governs between the start of a democratic transition and the assumption of power by a freely elected government has been a central one in many democratic regime changes around the globe, from Eastern Europe to the protracted conflicts in Cambodia, Afghanistan, and South Africa. In the last country, the issue of an appropriate interim government has been the focal point of political debate. The national executive committee of the African National Congress recently stated that "the only way forward is to create a transitional authority, with a limited life span, charged with the task of preparing the country for a democratic constitution and governing the country during this period."2

Most regimes, including nondemocratic ones, govern according to some legal norms, including rules of succession, a constitution, party statutes, military chains of command, and the like, which make predictable who can decide what. These normative frameworks lend the regime its "legal" character, which is to some extent independent of its claim to legitimacy. People may be ready to follow lawful orders without necessarily believing that the current system is the best and should not be replaced by another based on different principles. A policeman or army officer who favors a transition to democracy is still likely to obey legally given orders even in the absence of such a system.

During a transition, legality helps to ensure the continuity of the state's normal administrative functions—keeping order, collecting taxes, running the courts, and so on. While regime transition usually begins as a response to a crisis of legitimacy, legality ensures continuity until the moment when the representatives of the new regime can take over the reins. During the interregnum, the regents should be able to govern in accord with the existing legality until the new regime decides whether to modify the normative system.

Indeed, in any transition there are legal norms that are directly linked to the legitimating principles of the outgoing system. The advantage of legality for interim governments is that it helps to ensure the obedience of those who identify with the outgoing regime—primarily members of the police, the armed forces, and the judiciary—whatever their attitudes toward the transition process and democracy might be. "Legal takeover" helps to facilitate a peaceful and orderly transfer of power—provided, of course, that the administration intends to allow those who have been democratically elected to assume power. Naturally, the insistence on maintaining legality from the outgoing system can also impede the full transfer of power to elected leaders, as was demonstrated in the 1989 transition in Chile.

Once a new democratic government or assembly is elected, it must have the power to enact a new, democratic constitution. An interim government of incumbents may try to rig the legal system...


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