Katalin Szili: the Hungarian Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Or at least this is the title of József Debreczeni’s piece about Katalin Szili which has created such a stir. Just as a historian’s remark did a couple of days ago. In a television interview András Gerő, a Habsburg specialist who often writes about current politics as well, called László Sólyom a coward. Well, to be entirely truthful, the expression he used was a tad stronger. The Fidesz delegate to the organization that watches out for the political balance of the television stations objected because the reporter didn’t forbid the historian to utter such demeaning words against one of the "dignitaries" of Hungary. Interestingly, when Krisztina Morvai compared Ferenc Gyurcsány to Nero with bloody hands the same Fidesz delegate had no objections. When a reporter asked why didn’t she complain then, her answer was simple. She saw Gerő but she didn’t see Morvai. An interesting way of conducting business.

But let’s get back to Debreczeni’s piece entitled "A Pure Woman," the Hungarian title of Thomas Hardy’s novel. What prompted Debreczeni to give this ironic title were a couple of sentences he read in Katalin Szili’s interview given to Népszabadság (November 6). "My conscience spoke to me," or "I raise my voice because I am sensitive toward the sufferings of society and not because of some ulterior motives," or "there are some people who are in politics not to attain certain positions but they are in politics because of their purity of heart." Finally, from an earlier interview in which Szili said: "I am not in the habit of scheming … but no one can take away from me the right to think, to write, to speak according to my beliefs and commitments…. I was made this way."

Debreczeni makes fun of her: "What honesty, what decency, what selflessness. And how modest." Such utterances remind Debreczeni of a romantic poet or a lonely heroine of a nineteenth-century novel, not a serious politician. A politician cannot say such things as "what is in my heart is also on my lips."

Debreczeni argues that politics is team work, especially in the age of modern mass communication. It requires a unity of purpose or at least coordinated action and communication. "To think, to write, and speak–of course one can. . . . Within the party there is practically no limit to such activities, but outside only with measure and responsibility." Those who criticize publicly endanger the success of the group, damage its reputation and the possibility of success of the common goals. If these common goals are in jeopardy, such criticism is not going to help the situation. Why is it necessary to repeat at least once a month how bad the poll results are for the MSZP? Everybody knows that, including the leadership of the party. If Szili is so convinced that the MSZP under Gyurcsány’s leadership is going in the wrong direction she can do two things: (1) offer an alternative and argue along those lines in closed party forums or (2) within the party try to solidify her position, seek support, and organize a majority that could change the current policies of the party. "Katalin Szili is not doing either."

"The first alternative she never tried." Debreczeni dismisses Szili’s initial foray into political philosophy, a piece in Népszava a few months ago ("We must be left-wingers"), as intellectually barren. Her current criticism of the party doesn’t give us any more clues about what she would do in Gyurcsány’s place. It is not enough to repeat that she agrees that the reforms are necessary but should not be introduced against the will of the people. Or that one must simply tell the people before the start whether "’this is a sprint or a marathon." Politics is not that easy. But if Szili thinks that the only thing one has to do is to say whether it is a sprint or a marathon, why doesn’t she tell that to the people? "In the current situation no politician can speak in such simple metaphors."

Debreczeni’s next topic is Szili’s quest for political power. People accuse her of excessive ambition. Debreczeni, while writing his book on Gyurcsány, had an interview with Péter Medgyessy. Medgyessy told him that during the summer of 2002 when it became known that Medgyessy had been a counterintelligence officer (the D-209 scandal) and the liberals for a few hours debated whether or not to support Medgyessy, Szili offered herself to the SZDSZ as a candidate for Medgyessy’s post. In 2004 she campaigned against Ferenc Gyurcsány to lead the MSZP, but in the last moment she withdrew her candidacy. At this point she gave up all her positions within the MSZP in the hope of attaining the post of president of the republic. We know what came of that. Debreczeni calls this affair "the perfect example of unbridled personal ambition lacking the most elementary political common sense, rationality and moderation."

Finally, Debreczeni analyzes Szili’s qualities as a possible alternative to Ferenc Gyurcsány. What are the requisite qualities of a prime minister? "First of all I think of certain intellectual qualities like logical and analytical skills, strategic thinking, tactical sense, etc. Further, in connection with the above qualities the leader of a country must have good communication skills: oratorical and debating powers. Leadership qualities: the capacity to work hard, organizational skills, being able to withstand attacks, handling stress. Last but not least moral factors: a political calling and responsibility. I can safely state because this is not just my opinion but general knowledge in political circles: Katalin Szili lacks all the above mentioned virtues."

Debreczeni quotes a political commentator who claims that "Szili is the prisoner of her own popularity." Debreczeni goes further. He thinks that the MSZP has also become the prisoner of Szili’s popularity. The party leaders suffer all the abuse because they are afraid that by attacking the most popular MSZP politician they are hurting the already flagging fortunes of the party. Debreczeni thinks that this is an inaccurate assessment of the situation. He thinks that her popularity is based on the dais on which she sits, way above the madding crowd (if we remain in Hardy’s world). To the people who watch the parliamentary debates there sits Szili "above politics." Interestingly enough, Sólyom also thinks that he is above politics, when in fact the political parties put him in the Sándor Palota. Szili is not above politics. Her place on that dais is due to the MSZP’s decision. If she was put there by the party, the party can take it away from her.

So far the socialists refuse to take on the "pure woman." Ildikó Lendvai publicly defended her against Debreczeni’s unfair treatment. Szili’s answer: a new attack, this time in the right-wing Heti Válasz. Obviously, the lady is not grateful. Perhaps another strategy should be devised.

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Paul Hellyer
Guest
I think you might being a bit tough on Katalin Szili. She came to my country of New Zealand to present, on behalf on the government, a Székely Kapu carved in Érdely (Transylvania) to mark our local Millennium celebrations. This now stands proudly in a Hungarian garden here in the capital, Wellington (see http://hungarianconsulate.co.nz/mmp_en.html). I absolutely get that patriotism can easily slide into nationalism and all that that entails. God only knows how Hungary has suffered from an excess of nationalism. Its bastard child, antisemitism, continues to blight the land. Still, Katalin Szili seems to me to embody the best of Hungarianess and her visit here and her actions mean a lot to the small community of ‘Hungarians beyond the borders’ that is furtherest from Hungary . She is not an easy person to warm to but she has had to overcome a lot to get where she is. She is a successful woman in a heavily male-dominated society and has, what people don’t talk about, a physical disability that would not have made life any easier. OK, she isn’t perfect and I don’t dispute much of what you say about her Éva, but to me she is someone who… Read more »
Paul Hellyer
Guest
I think you might being a bit tough on Katalin Szili. She came to my country of New Zealand to present, on behalf on the government, a Székely Kapu carved in Érdely (Transylvania) to mark our local Millennium celebrations. This now stands proudly in a Hungarian garden here in the capital, Wellington (see http://hungarianconsulate.co.nz/mmp_en.html). I absolutely get that patriotism can easily slide into nationalism and all that that entails. God only knows how Hungary has suffered from an excess of nationalism. Its bastard child, antisemitism, continues to blight the land. Still, Katalin Szili seems to me to embody the best of Hungarianess and her visit here and her actions mean a lot to the small community of ‘Hungarians beyond the borders’ that is furtherest from Hungary . She is not an easy person to warm to but she has had to overcome a lot to get where she is. She is a successful woman in a heavily male-dominated society and has, what people don’t talk about, a physical disability that would not have made life any easier. OK, she isn’t perfect and I don’t dispute much of what you say about her Éva, but to me she is someone who… Read more »