Katalin Szili is more than “silly” but is she dangerous?

Katalin Szili has been causing the MSZP a lot of headaches lately. So let’s review her career to date and speculate on her career plans.

She finished high school and university in Pécs, where prior to 1989 she worked for the city. She became an MSZMP member in 1983, but in 1989 she immediately joined the new socialist party and was active in local politics. In 1994 she ran for parliament and won in Pécs’s second district. Once she became a member of parliament, she rose through the ranks of the party leadership rapidly. Apparently, one reason for her quick rise was her relative youth and her sex. The socialists wanted to bring into prominence a younger generation of politicians and actually had a quota for women. First, she became one of the deputy speakers (during the Fidesz government) and, when the socialists won the elections in 2002, she became speaker of the house, a position she still holds.

In the monthly polls on the popularity of politicians published by Médián she always ranks first or second. The personal popularity of politicians largely depends on the extent to which the person is acceptable to the other side. Ferenc Gyurcsány and Viktor Orbán, for example, occupy rather low positions on the scale although both men are very popular among their own followers. However, they are squarely rejected by the other side. Szili’s popularity indicates that she is popular not just among socialists but also among Fidesz voters.

But why? First of all because Szili is a practicing Catholic who actually organized a "Christian platform" within the socialist party. Second, because Szili seems to be more "patriotic" (nationalistic?) than most of her colleagues on the left. For example, while her party campaigned against the dual citizenship proposal of the World Federation of Hungarians (backed by Fidesz), Szili admitted that she voted for the measure. A lot of eyebrows were raised.

Then came real trouble. Szili, backed by László Toller, then still mayor of Pécs and an influential man in the socialist party, got it into her head that she would like to be the new president of Hungary. According to the Hungarian constitution, the president is elected by the parliamentary parties. Since Mádl’s tenure was coming to an end during the Gyurcsány government, it was expected that the MSZP-SZDSZ candidate would get the post. But there had to be an agreement between the coalition parties concerning the candidate. And then came the complication. The SZDSZ announced that they would not support Szili’s candidacy. Without SZDSZ support, Szili couldn’t become president unless some Fidesz-MDF members voted for her, which they didn’t. As Gyurcsány later said, he knew that there would be trouble but didn’t want to get involved on either side of the debate over Szili’s candidacy. He remained neutral. The result is well known. Szili lost and László Sólyom, by that time supported by Fidesz, became president.

For a while after this fiasco Szili was rather quiet. In the last few months, however, she has put herself in the political limelight. She claims that her utterances are dictated by her worries about her party’s future. This is hard to believe. Ranking members of a political party fight it out behind closed doors, not in the media. Her initial foray (a few months ago) was an article she wrote for Népszava in which Szili accused her party of not being socially sensitive. This article sparked at least half a dozen published responses by left-wing intellectuals or party members until another MSZP politician, Zoltán Szabó, put an end to the tirades.

A few months of silence followed until, on November 3 in KlubRádió’s Saturday political program (Hetes Studió), Ferenc Vicsek interviewed Szili who again sharply rebuked her party and Ferenc Gyurcsány. She announced that if "we don’t change we will lose the elections." Later, when she had to face criticism, she claimed that she was just thinking aloud! Since when can a politician think aloud? Apparently, Ildikó Lendvai and others in the party had a heart to heart with Szili but perhaps it came too late, or Szili simply doesn’t listen. On November 6 another interview appeared. This time in Népszabadság. Szili renewed her attack on the party leadership (and, let’s not forget Gyurcsány is not only the prime minister but head of the socialist party) and announced that current socialist politics will drive the party into a dead end. The interview can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/24abs2

Then came an excellent article about Szili and her articles and interviews by József Debreczeni, whom I consider perhaps the best publicist in Hungary. Debreczeni began his political career in the MDF but he was removed from the party at the same time as István Csurka. It was József Antall’s way of maintaining a balance between the party’s right and left. Despite his removal from the party by Antall, Debreczeni wrote a very sympathic biography of the first prime minister of the third republic (A miniszterelnök, 1998, 2203). He also sympathized with the younger Viktor Orbán and continued his career as a biographer with a book on Orbán (Orbán Viktor, 2002). And finally, he wrote a biography of Ferenc Gyurcsány (Az új miniszterelnök, 2006). Lately Debreczeni makes no secret of his great disappointment in Orbán and his admiration of Gyurcsány.

Well, Debreczeni had enough of Katalin (Kati as all her colleagues call her) Szili. He wrote a fairly lengthy article that appeared in Népszava (November 13; http://tinyurl.com/2ljjcg ) under the title "Egy tiszta nő" (A Pure Woman). This, by the way, references Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles; the Hungarian title of the novel is the subtitle of the English original. The article is, in my opinion, so good that I think I will give a lengthier summary of it tomorrow. For the time being it is enough to say that there is an outcry in certain circles about Debreczeni’s sharp criticism of Szili and his less than flattering remarks about her intellectual and political abilities. There are, of course, people who fully agree with Debreczeni, but there are others, especially on the right, who find such criticism of "important people" a sacrilege. Poor Debreczeni was called a hack (bértollnok) in a letter to the editor of Népszava. Another letter praised Debreczeni and agreed with "his every word." Debreczeni has since appeared on several television channels explaining his position. Yesterday even Ildikó Lendvai felt that she and the party had to defend "Kati" against this terrible, terrible Debreczeni. I don’t think that it was a wise move on her part. Today the right-wing Heti Válasz came out with a new Szili interview. This time Szili called the Fidesz "a socially more sensitive party" than her own.

What does Szili want? What are her hopes? Surely, her actions are not guided only by her worries over her party’s future. Is she certain that the party will get rid of Gyurcsány and she herself can take his place? Or is she courting the Fidesz in case Orbán and his party win in 2010 and her ambitions for the post of president are still alive? I don’t know, but it is certain that the Szili affair will have to be dealt with. One way or the other.