Viktor Orbán’s thoughts on the “Hungarian quality of existence” (III)

We have finally arrived at the most controversial part of Viktor Orbán's speech. He describes the Hungarian political situation at least until very recently as a "dual field of force." In Hungarian it is "duális erőtér." That is not a term used in any kind of political discourse. People are not even sure what it means. But it looks that this dual field consists of the government on the one hand and its opposition on the other. The existence of these two poles is not a good thing according to Orbán because "there are no common values, no common goal in this dual field … but a constant battle about the most fundamental questions." And he gives an example. If Fidesz wants to introduce family support through tax cuts, MSZP-SZDSZ puts an end to it. If Fidesz says that it wants to give dual citizenship to Hungarians living in the neighboring countries, MSZP-SZDSZ opposes it. These disagreements are not only about politics but also about values. And according to Orbán that is a dreadful situation.

But there is hope. It looks as if Fidesz is gaining such overwhelming strength that soon enough "a central political field of force" will become reality. Thus there is the possibility that "the next fifteen-twenty years will not be characterized by a dual field of force" and thus one will be able to avoid all those useless arguments between the government and the opposition. Instead, "for a long time a big government party will be in charge that will be able to formulate national goals and be able to do it without constant bickering." In fact, according to Orbán, they "should build such a governing system that would reduce to a minimum the possibility of the dual field of force's return. Instead, a central field of force would handle political questions. Otherwise counter-government and the dual field of force will return." Orbán is convinced that one mustn't continue this "counter-governing." Instead, "one must realize a government of national affairs." In place of "constant battles we must choose constant governing." So, instead of "a two-party system" a big government party without much discussion will govern as they see fit.

Well, that sparked a huge outcry in the ever shrinking liberal camp. In spite of the strange talk about central and dual fields, the message seems to be clear. Orbán would like to see an opposition so weak that it wouldn't be able to create a counterweight to a very strong government party. Once a party, in this case Fidesz, gains overwhelming power it could institute a system that would prevent the opposition from ever effectively opposing its will or unseating it.

Such a scenario reminded everybody who knows anything about twentieth-century Hungarian history of the political monopoly that István Bethlen created in 1922. Through a system of ballot manipulation, handing out government jobs, and changing the electoral law to enfranchise supporters, he was able to form a political machine that was unstoppable in Hungarian politics. It was a multi-party system, but the opposition to the Party of Unity was powerless.

Yesterday I briefly mentioned József Orosz's radio program Kontra. On Friday two people were invited to comment on the events of the week: András Gerő, whom I mentioned yesterday, and Gábor Bruck. Bruck very rightly pointed out that politicians don't have to be intellectual powerhouses. There must, however, be an intellectual elite who can supply them with ideas. He finds the Fidesz brain trust wanting.

Surely all this talk about dual this and that wasn't born in Orbán's head. Someone had to supply him with these ideas. Whom were they reading? What was their source of inspiration? Tamás Ungvári dropped a line about Carl Schmitt, a political philosopher with whom I was not familiar but whose views have seen a resurgence of interest in Hungary. So I did a little research and here's what I found.

Schmitt was an academic who got mixed up with Hitler's Germany. For a whole year he was in an American internment camp. After his release he never again taught in a German university because he refused to adhere to the de-Nazification required for such a post. I might add that he was an anti-Semite. His complicity with Nazi Germany left him discredited. But he is recognized as an insightful, if flawed critic of the modern democratic order. Jürgen Habermas noted that Schmitt's arguments have a potentially fatal appeal in the contemporary world. It seems that Hungary is no exception.

Schmitt was a sworn enemy of pluralism and liberalism. He described politics as a serious game of war and peace. He preferred unity to duality and talked about a strong government. For Schmitt every government capable of decisive action must include a dictatorial element within its constitution. In one of his works on dictatorship he says that dictatorships can be more meaningfully democratic than democracies. No wonder that I found his name crop up in books such as Anti-democratic Thought, or Law as Politics: Carl Schmitt's Critique of Liberalism. The title of a book about him is telling: The Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought. His books are available in English, some of them in paperback.

In Hungary there is a definite Carl Schmitt revival. Between 2000 and 2008 four of his works were translated into Hungarian. His theories are included in the university curriculum at the University of Pécs. And recall that it was in 2006 that Orbán began talking about the distinction between legal and legitimate. He kept saying over and over that Gyurcsány's government wasn't legitimate. That adjective, in ordinary parlance, meant much more than not being popular. Interestingly I found that Schmitt's book of the same title came out in Hungarian the very same year, Legalitás és legitimitás (2006).

All in all, I have the feeling that the philosophical foundation of Orbán's speeches is the tainted Carl Schmitt. I for one am mighty uncomfortable with a politician who instinctively finds the give and take of democracy nettlesome being influenced by a political philosopher who thinks that dictatorships trump democracies. And this, for any readers who have kneejerk reactions, has nothing to do with liberalism or conservatism. I happen to believe that democracies trump dictatorships, pure and simple.

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@ESBalogh: Amongst the quotes flying about in the Fidesz-Jobbik battle of words yesterday in response to the Bayer Zsolt open letter to Zazrivecz there was this one from Orbán quoted from Magyar Nemzet (1998): ‘There should never be such a government for Hungary that can feel free to declare: there is no alternative aside from us. Those that declare such do not want to govern, rather to reign.’ (“Soha többé ne legyen olyan kormányfője Magyarországnak, aki nyugodtan kijelentheti: rajta kívül nincs más alternatíva. Aki ezt állítja, az nem kormányozni, hanem uralkodni akar.” Orbán V., Magyar Nemzet, 1998. április 9.).


Surely the desire to dominate the political scene for the next couple of decades does not have in itself to be anti-democratic. A country like Sweden was ruled for over 50 years by the Social Democrats, and no-one would call Sweden dictatorial, even though in practice it was a one-party state for a very long time. As long as Hungary is a EU member I can’t see Orban taking any measures to truly undermine Hungary’s basically democratic set up, though you’ll certainly get a Berlusconi type populism.


Yes, and I think we can trust in Orbán’s own shortcomings and failures to spin the electoral cycle back round at some point. Of course, who benefits from this is still open to question. The MSZP may be facing a permanent decline, given their age demographic.
For sure, OV may aspire to an overwhelming slice of the political pie; the reality of the modern Hungarian state, I believe, is far more messy and politically incontinent than many of his supporters would like to think, and he must be nervous at the prospect of hard times awaiting any fleeting electoral success.

For all the worry about the FIDESZ/Orban political philosophy, the really story (as usual) is about $, € and HUF! Orban is the titular head of the party, but the real power lies with the FIDESZ money men and bag men, and they are already out in force figuring out which industries/businesses will revert to FIDESZ friendly hands (e.g., nationalize a bank or 2, take over the utilities, reclaim the gas pipeline, make a real estate play on the hospitals). Politics in Hungary is a for profit business, and the vile end to the MSZP/SZDSZ reign (see: BKV) demonstrates that this crosses party lines and ideology. Would Orban like to cement political control for multiple election cycles? I am sure. But the main strategy for doing this will not be by dismantling political institutions from the front (after all he craves Hungary being the EU president in 2011) but furthering the MSZP efforts at undermining the political system by embedding Government-led corruption of the public and private sectors for the benefit of the party in power. As odious as Jobbik is, their appeal lies in the fact that most people know that the game FIDESZ plays is very much the… Read more »
“And recall that it was in 2006 that Orbán began talking about the distinction between legal and legitimate. He kept saying over and over that Gyurcsány’s government wasn’t legitimate. That adjective, in ordinary parlance, meant much more than not being popular. Interestingly I found that Schmitt’s book of the same title came out in Hungarian the very same year, Legalitás és legitimitás (2006).” Actually the distinction between “legality” and “legitimacy” is a basic one in both political science and political sociology. The two things are not the same thing. Nor is this distinction a particularly original aspect of Carl Schmitt’s work; indeed it is fairly basic to Max Weber’s writings on the subject (which is where much of the thinking about political legitimacy in the social sciences originates). Legitimacy refers to those unwritten rules through which power and authority is justified. Legality can be form of legitimacy, but that something is legal does not make it legitimate. Orbán has clearly used this distinction in a way that is self-serving, but it is difficult to resist the conclusion that he is right. After all a legal government is one chosen by parliament elected by the people in free election; the unwritten… Read more »
“In Hungary there is a definite Carl Schmitt revival.” And not just in Hungary. Beginning in the late 1980s, and accelerating in the last decade there has been something of a Carl Schmitt boom in the English-speaking world, as more and more of his works have been translated into English. It is quite interesting as to why, but it is not unconnected to the way in which civil liberties in western Europe and north America have been constrained through the spread of anti-terrorist legislation, and the ways in which certain western states have side-stepped the formal mechanisms of international law to engage in military intervention overseas that they deem to be justified. Given that, well, western liberalism has been getting less, well, “liberal” political philosophers have been returning to a critic of liberalism like Schmitt to theorize what is happening in the contemporary world. States like those in the US and UK have been behaving in ways remarkably consistent with some of the positions adopted in Schmitt’s writings. While I do think Schmitt’s writings should be taught at university level, seen from this point-of-view FIDESZ’s interest in him is worrying. Can one imagine FIDESZ using a version of Schmitt’s notion… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh

Mark:”Nor is this distinction a particularly original aspect of Carl Schmitt’s work; indeed it is fairly basic to Max Weber’s writings on the subject.”
Sure, but don’t think that Orbán knows a lot about either Max Weber or Carl Schmitt. Simply, I was struck by the coincidence of the date. Orbán is the kind of guy who looks around and finds something that he considers politically intriguing and adopts it as his own. Then he keeps repeating and repeating it for a while. A book title will do, I think, to make his brain work.


“In Hungary there is a definite Carl Schmitt revival.”
“And not just in Hungary.”
In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński – former Prime Minister 2005-2007 – is ‘acccused’ (especially by liberal and left-wing medias) of implementing Schmitt’s idea of politics as a constant dispute. I’m not 100% sure whether Jarosław Kaczyński or one of his fellows has ever acknowledged that he’s a fan of German philosopher but his attitude towards constitution, local-governments or corporations proves that Kaczyński has contact with Carl Schmitt’s publications…