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A shadow government is a "government-in-waiting" that remains in waiting with the intention of taking control of a government in response to some event.


In a parliamentary system, the largest opposition party often refers to itself as a shadow government and, if it is sufficiently large, it may also have a Shadow Cabinet in which top opposition leaders shadow the policies and actions of the corresponding cabinet ministers. They are prepared to assume the respective ministries of responsibility should their party come to power in an election. For example, in Britain the largest opposition party's defence spokesman might refer to themselves as the Shadow Defence Secretary. Smaller parties may also have spokespeople, but these do not generally use shadow names.

It is also used as a somewhat pejorative term to denote a government that takes over in the event of a disaster. Guerrillas sometimes have equivalent structures to the present government in hopes that when the guerrilla-group overthrows the present government, the guerrilla-forces will more easily be able to transition from militarist to administrative capacity. Also, the term "shadow government" can be used loosely to refer to a guerrilla-force that controls and administers the majority of the physical area of a country, rendering the official national government significantly less able to administer its policies.

In nations with less apparent strife, several safeguards are in place in the event of a disaster strong enough to disrupt the functioning of the government. The United Statesmarker has Continuity of Operations Plan, Continuity of Government and the presidential line of succession plans.

The tasks and objectives of Operation Gladio varied from country to country but in many countries the 'stay-behind' army consisted of a pre-planned cabinet to rule the country in an interim fashion if the country were invaded by Warsaw Pact states, either in-country or in exile.

In the United Kingdommarker the Civil Contingencies Secretariat is responsible for planning for government continuity in the event of a catastrophe. None of these safeguards is itself a "shadow government", but they provide, at least in theory, a blueprint for what to do if the governmental structure collapses.

Alternative definitions

The concept of a "shadow government" is extremely popular in works of conspiracy theory and conspiracy fiction. Conspiracy theorists define a shadow government as a "secret government within the government". This secret government is the "real" government that controls the legitimate and visible government's agenda. The members' identities and meetings in smoke-filled rooms of the shadow government are known by only a select few.

Believed to be controlled by Freemasons, Illuminati, Jews, the Antichrist or alien infiltrators, this secret government is often portrayed as having storehouses of dreadful secrets, staff being unknowningly used to further an agenda, and an interest in controlling the path humanity will take into an ominous future. The shadow government is often funded by money that has been purposely "misplaced" within the government's system, or concealed behind government-contract projects that are false front for other undertakings.

One of the most popular conspiracy theories about a shadow government among ideologues of the far-right is the notion of a "Zionist Occupation Government".

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