1. A lack of (coherent, strong) leadership, perhaps following the departure or death of a leader. For example, political vacuum in Iraq, Israel or Pakistan.
- The vacuum left by Bhutto's death (BBC News, December 2007)
- Jessica Tuchman Mathews, Achieving Stability in a Political Vacuum (March 2008)
- India fears vacuum left by Musharraf (BBC News August 2008)
- Goodbye Musharraf, Hello Taliban (Asia Times, August 2008)
- Israel's political vacuum. By Shmuel Rosner (Slate Magazine, August 2008)
1a. As a special case of 1., the interregnum between the outgoing and incoming leader.
- Political vacuum ... slow impact of bail-out (Arizona Daily Star, 22 November 2008)
2. A lack of representation or voice for some groups.
- Hazel Blears (UK Community Secretary): "If mainstream political parties leave a vacuum, people like the BNP will fill that vacuum." (BBC News, November 2008)
3. A lack of stability.
- Mahan Abedin, Iraqi rebels fill political vacuum (Global Terrorism Analysis, 9 January 2006)
- Shaun Woodwood (UK Northern Ireland Secretary: Political Vacuum fuelling dissidents (Belfast Telegraph, 21 October 2008)
4. A lack of knowledge
- "Israeli Jews know next to nothing about their Arab fellow citizens. And in such a vacuum, the hateful views of a determined minority can take root and flourish." Richard Silverstein: Acting in ignorance (Guardian, 27 March 2008)
5. An unused system or mechanism
- "Political arenas that are not used wind up creating all sorts of dangers." Etyen Mahçupyan, Political vacuum in military guardianship (Today's Zaman, 31 October 2008).
6. An unavailable system or mechanism, creating an unfilled demand.
- Super rich step into political vacuum (Washington Post, 17 October 2004)
So many different types of vacuum then.
Often the main beneficiaries of any kind of vacuum are extremists.
- Extremists Take Advantage of the Political Vacuum in Kosovo (SWP, September 2003)
- Uzbekistan: Overthrow could leave vacuum to be filled by Islamic extremists (Times, 26 May 2005)
- In Afghanistan, Taliban Returns to Fill a Vacuum (NPR, 20 November 2006)
- "Iraq has acted as a fundamentalist vacuum, sucking up extremists from across the globe." The Great Terror Vacuum has Begun to Breakdown (Foreign Policy Association, October 2008)
Now here's the problem. Once something is perceived (framed) as a vacuum, there is a kind of inevitability about the consequences. But what causes us to frame something as a vacuum in the first place? The word vacuum implies that there is some hole in the polity, but this of course depends on some idea of what counts as a complete polity in the first place. Do we need strong leaders? Do we need to provide a voice for everyone, including the bad and the mad? Which political structures enable a decent balance between stability and change?
Once the absence of a strong leader is counted as a vacuum, with such-and-such consequences, we can talk ourselves into an unhelpful political agenda - for example, either supporting Saddam Hussein for fear of the consequences (as the West did for years) or rushing to replace him with some fantasized polity called Iraqi democracy (as America and its allies did with ill-considered haste).
Is the BNP filling a vacuum? Better not give it the oxygen of publicity then!