The 10 Shortest-serving Heads of State
....of modern times

In the wake of Gerald Ford's death, there was much good-natured joking and teasing among Americans about the comparative brevity of the president's 2.5 year term. By US standards, any president who serves anything less than a full four-year term is automatically destined to become something of a footnote to history, in a large part because the country has had a lengthy tradition of long-reigning presidents.

Other countries have not been so lucky, however. In many parts of the world Ford's two-year term would be considered downright lengthy, especially when compared to the amazingly brief tenures of some of these characters:

 

1) President Pedro Lascuráin Paredes of Mexico, February 13, 1919

Crown Prince F

2) Luís Filipe, King of Portugal, February 1, 1908

Portgual's King Carlos and his son Prince Filipe, the heir to the throne, were both shot and killed by an revolutionary assassin during a royal tour in 1908. The King died instantly, but the Crown Prince briefly survived only to die from massive blood loss en route to the hospital.

According to monarchical logic, a royal succession occurs immediately upon the death of the king, so technically, it can be argued that Luis was King for a period of less than 30 minutes in 1908. If Luis Filipe had made it to the hospital and survived, no one would have contested his legitimacy. Official records, however, do not recognize Luis Filipe as having been a legitimate king of Portugal. 

After the deaths, the crown would be passed to Carlos' brother, Manuel II, who ruled for less than two years before being deposed in 1910.

 

3) Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Chancellor of Germany, April 30 - May 1, 1945

According to Hitler's final, and much-revised will, upon the Führer's death, the Chancellorship of Germany was passed on to Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. A civilian politician who had played an increasingly minor role in the key decision-making of World War II, Goebbels was hardly an obvious choice to lead the Third Riech at a time when Germany's complete conquest by the Allied forces seemed imminent. But by the end of the war Hitler had grown paranoid and distrustful of the rest of the Nazi high command, and Goebbels was considered the best candidate available.

After Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, Goebbels briefly inherited the office of chancellor. His only act of note was to refuse a Soviet overture for surrender. Knowing defeat was inevitable, Goebbels then made his entire family commit suicide, rather than face certain death at the hands of the approaching Russians. Most estimate Goebbels was legally Chancellor for about five hours spanning the late evening of April 30th to the morning of May 1st, 1945.

Hitler's will also assigned Admiral Karl Dönitz, the head of the German Navy, the role of "president," a title he had previously abolished. Following Goebbles' death, Donitz assumed complete control of the German government and agreed to an unconditional surrender to the Allies on May 7, 1945. On May 12 the occupying Allies formally dissolved the German government.

 

4) Carlos Manuel Piedra, interim President of Cuba, January 2, 1959

As Fidel Castro's forces moved into the Havana in January of 1959, what was left of the Cuban army desperately tried to maintain control of the situation.

President Fulgencio Batista resigned on January 1, followed by Vice President Anselmo Alliegro a day later. Next in line would have been the President of the Congress, but he had preemptively resigned too. According to the Cuban constitution, the oldest justice of the Supreme Court would become the new president in such a situation. The army swore Justice Manuel Piedra in, and carted him off the the Presidential palace. The elderly judge called for calm, then promptly fled to the American embassy as the rebels began to surround the building. Declaring the presidency vacant, the rebels appointed their own provisional president. Justice Pierdra had been in power for a few hours.

 

5) Siaka Stevens - Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, March 21, 1967

Stevens was the longtime strongman of Sierra Leone, but it took him a few tries to obtain a firm hold on power.

In 1967, he was leader of a leftist political party called the All Peoples' Congress, or APC. Free elections were held that year, and the APC narrowly won a plurality of seats in the parliament. The outgoing prime minister refused to go quietly, however, and ordered the military to prevent Stevens from taking office.

On March 21, 1967 Stevens was sworn in as prime minister in the Governor-General's mansion, but mere minutes after he finished reciting the oath a gang of military officials burst into the room and arrested the new PM.

The milirary regime proved brief and incompetent however, and in 1968 Stevens was restored to power. He would remain in office until 1985.

 

6) Roger LaFontant- Military president of Haiti, January 7, 1991

1991 was not a good year for Haiti. The downfall of the military leader Henri Namphy led to much political unrest, and a succession of very briefly-serving heads of state.

The military initially installed Prosper Avril to succeeded Nemphy, and he served for about a year and a half. But the Haitian people wanted democracy, and street protests forced Avril to step down. In his place, the military installed Hérard Abraham as interim president, but he was a conciliatory guy and agreed to stepped down two days later in order to facilitate the return of  civilian rule.

In accordance with the old civilian constitution, the chief justice of the Haitian supreme court, Ms. Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, became the new interim president, and she called elections. In response, General Roger LaFontant staged a coup and deposed her, making himself president.

A few hours later a counter-coup re-installed Ms. Pascal-Trouillot as president, making General LaFontant's attempted regime hilariously brief. The Judge held office for one more month, and then a Marxist priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected Haiti's first democratically-chosen president. And from then on Haiti never had any problems again.

 

7) Skënder Gjinushi, President of Albania, July 24, 1997

After the end of the country's long Communist era, Albania was led by a charismatic and corrupt president named Sali Berisha. In 1997 he lost his bed for re-election but refused to step down. For one month he stubbornly refused to leave office, but the public cries of opposition got too loud, and Berisha was eventually forced to resign. As a result of his abrupt departure, House Speaker Skender Gjinushi inherited the Presidency for a few scant hours on July 24, 1997. Later that day the Albanian parliament appointed Rexhep Meidani president — the man who had beat Berisha in the recent election.

 

8) Ratu Tevita Momoedonu, Prime Minister of Fiji, March 14-15, 2001

Laisenia Qarase was appointed interim Prime Minister of Fiji in 2000 following a military coup. At first he called himself an "interim" Prime Minister who was just going to hold office temporarily, but he quickly dropped that pretense and began plotting to extend his hold on power.

By 2001 his interim term was due to expire, and the Fijian constitution forbids an interim prime minister serving two back-to-back terms. So running for re-election was out of the question. Or was it?

Exploiting a loophole in Fiji's parliamentary system, Qarase convinced the senile and dottering President of Fiji, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, to appoint his close political ally, Ratu Momoedonu, as Prime Minister, with the understanding that Momoedonu would resign after 24 hours had passed. Momoedonu agreed, and thus a day later President Iloilo was legally allowed to re-appoint Laisenia Qarase as the "new" PM. No longer having interim status, Qarase successfully ran for re-election and held office until he was deposed in a 2006 coup.

 

9) Diosdado Cabello- President of Venezuela, April 13-14, 2002

In 2002 Venezuela had a very strange and controversial coup which briefly deposed Hugo Chavez and installed capitalist plutocrat Pedro Carmona Estanga as head of a "transitional government." His regime would only last two days.

Venezuela is a very polarized nation, and the coup mobilized Chavez loyalists to the streets. Following mass protests and a general strike the Estanga government agreed to step down. Estanga himself fled the country, and Chavez supporters retook control of the presidential palace.

Chavez now had to be re-instated, but the problem was Chavez had resigned. Or at least that was the opinion of the coup people. So following Estanga's flee on the night of April 13, Diosdado Cabello, who had been Chavez's vice president, was sworn in as president of the republic. President Cabello then immediately appointed his own VP- Hugo Chavez. He then resigned in the early morning of April the 14th, and Chavez legally regained the presidency, which he held until his death in 2013.


10) Boris Yeltsin, acting Prime Minister of Russia, March 23, 1998

On March 23, 1998, Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, along with his entire cabinet. Yeltsin then declared that he was appointing himself acting Prime Minister until matters could be further sorted out.

A few hours later, however, his lawyers told him that appointing yourself prime minister may be unconstitutional. So Yeltsin caved, and picked someone else.

 

10) Honorable mention- King Dipendra of Nepal, June 1-4, 2001

With a reign of three days, King Dipendra's term as king was considerably longer than some of the other leaders we have profiled here. But his time as Nepal's head of state will certainly go down in history as one of the most bizarre reigns of any monarch.

As crown prince, Dipendra grew increasingly cross with his parents because they would not approve of his proposed marriage to Miss Devyani Rana, a member of a rival family. One night Dipendra was feeling particularly depressed about this state of affairs, and sat alone in his room drinking considerable quantities of alcohol. Then he got a brilliant idea to solve his problem.

Machine gun in tow, the crown prince burst into the sitting room of the royal palace where most of his family had been enjoying a leisurely get-together. He shot and killed his parents (the king and queen) along with his brother and sister in one of the most violent acts of regicide in history. He then either turned the gun on himself or was shot by the palace guards; this fact is still disputed. Regardless, Dipendra was carried out of the palace in a stretcher, mortally wounded and brain dead.

But since his father was dead, crown prince Dipendra automatically became king, and was proclaimed as such on his hospital bed. Lying unconscious on life support, King Dipendra lived for two days in critical condition before finally succumbing to his injuries.