The other day I listened to a discussion between József Debreczeni, the well known publicist, and László Bartus, a journalist and author of several books on politics who in the last few years has been living in the United States. He is the owner, editor, and publisher of Amerikai-Magyar Népszava, the oldest Hungarian-language paper in North America. Bartus, while talking about Viktor Orbán's attitude toward the government, mentioned that the Fidesz party chief calls Ferenc Gyurcsány's government illegal. József Debreczeni, who in his earlier life was a high school teacher, promptly corrected him and proceeded to explain the alleged difference between "illegal" and "illegitimate." The explanation was not new to me. I was on the receiving end of the lecture about two years ago when Viktor Orbán first called the Gyurcsány government "illegitimate." On the list I was monitoring I was told that there is a huge difference between "illegal" and "illegitimate." I was just ignorant. The current Hungarian government was "legal" in the sense that its election conformed to the existing laws of the country, but it was "illegitimate" in the sense that it was not supported by a majority of the population. Thus, in Orbán's clever usage, if a government is not popular it is "illegitimate."
Now "legal" and "legitimate" are really synomyms of each other in ordinary usage, whether in English or Hungarian. Webster's gives as one of the meanings of "legal" "deriving authority from law." The word "legitimate" means the same thing: "accordant with law." The Hungarian situation is exactly the same. According to Magyar értelmező kéziszótár (the Hungarian equivalent of Webster's) "legitim" means "törvényes, jogszerű" while "legális" means "jogos, jogszerű." In English: both mean lawful, according to the law. Thus they are synonyms. So how did we end up making a distinction between "legal" and "legitimate" or rather "illegal" and "illegitimate"?
I don't know the exact provenance of this forced distinction, though if I recall correctly it had its roots in some social science theory (probably obscure since I can't find it now). I do remember that when Viktor Orbán invoked the alleged distinction between these two adjectives, I argued that only a linguistically tone deaf person could claim that one meant illegal and the other unpopular. I didn't win the argument, and ever since I have been annoyed that some political commentators, for example, József Debreczeni, whose work I very much admire, fall for Fidesz linguistics and use this contrived distinction to befuddle Hungarians. Viktor Orbán is a master of linguistic manipulation, and he has conned the best and the brightest.
Debreczeni certainly fell for Orbán's distinction. I found an article of his, written in 2006 right after Orbán announced the lawfulness but illegitimacy of the government, in which he explained the distinction and complained that people mix up the two distinct concepts. (No wonder, that was exactly the devilish plan!) According to Debreczeni, "legitimacy is a political-sociological concept while legality is a legal concept." Ah, so!
Unfortunately, the program in which the Debreczeni-Bartus discussion took place (József Orosz's program on Klub Rádió) ended before Bartus could lambaste the decoupling of these two words. I remember when Orbán's government around 2000 was more unpopular than the Gyurcsány government has been at any time since its establishment. Was it illegitimate? Both the George Bush administration and the Democratically controlled Congress have disastrous approval ratings. Are they both illegitimate? Well, should I continue? I do hope that this artificial, unnatural distinction will soon be debunked because it serves only to assist one person's political goals.