Pal Losonczi

Low-profile President of Hungary
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The Independent Online

As Hungary's president for 20 years during the latter part of the Communist era, Pal Losonczi, a grey, self-effacing figure, made even less impression on his country's political life than his largely ceremonial office would have justified.

Pal Losonczi, farmer and politician: born Bolho, Hungary 18 September 1919; Minister of Agriculture 1960-67, President of Hungary 1967-87; married (one son, and one son deceased); died Barcs, Hungary 28 March 2005.

As Hungary's president for 20 years during the latter part of the Communist era, Pal Losonczi, a grey, self-effacing figure, made even less impression on his country's political life than his largely ceremonial office would have justified.

Apart from his formal duties of meeting foreign dignitaries and presenting medals to a succession of "Heroes of Socialist Labour" and other recipients of similar honours, his main political function was to provide solid, largely unquestioning support to Janos Kadar, the head of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party (HSWP) - as the Communists were known - who ruled Hungary for over three decades under the watchful eyes of the Soviet leadership.

Yet, before his elevation to the post of head of state in 1967, Losonczi had made a significant contribution to one of Communist Hungary's relatively few success stories: a buoyant farming sector. A shrewd peasant, who turned the collective farm he ran during the 1950s into something of a model for the rest of the country, Losonczi, as Minister of Agriculture after 1960, was among the key figures who implemented pragmatic reforms to boost food production.

The result became known as Hungary's brand of "goulash socialism". There was plenty of food in the shops, enough left over for exports and the peasantry were enjoying a modest degree of prosperity. For a regime badly shaken by the pro-democracy Uprising of 1956, it represented a form of stability to complement that provided by the Soviet troops that stayed on in Hungary after they had crushed the Uprising.

Losonczi's first step on the ladder to future success began in 1945 when he was among the thousands of landless farm workers who benefited from the distribution of land from the large estates. Three years later the largely reluctant peasantry were forced to part with their land as the countryside was collectivised on the Soviet " kolkhoz" model. Losonczi was among the few winners: he emerged as the chairman of the "Red Star" collective farm in Barcs, in the south-west of the country, which he proceeded to run for the next 12 years.

"Red Star" became one of the co- operative farms that were allowed to pioneer some incentive-based payment schemes during the days of strict egalitarianism in the 1950s. And after the farms were re-collectivised at the end of the decade - following their collapse during the revolutionary changes in 1956 when farmers left them in their droves - the reforms introduced in the early 1960s were based on pilot schemes, such as Losonczi's at Barcs.

Losonczi was neither the intellectual author nor the political heavyweight who pushed through the agricultural reforms that adopted the system of payment (at least partially) by result on the collective farms and, equally importantly, allowed farmers to keep small plots of land of their own where they achieved remarkably high yields "by cultivating their own gardens". But, as Minister of Agriculture for seven years, he was a competent administrator who helped implement the measures associated with the Deputy Prime Minister Lajos Feher, the architect of Hungary's agricultural reforms.

Losonczi's relative popularity and his peasant origins led to his promotion in 1967 to the post of President. The position of head of state was traditionally filled by a politician from the countryside in a regime that formally styled itself the state of "workers and peasants". As President, he distinguished himself mostly by his low-profile approach. His firm loyalty to Kadar was rewarded when he was given a seat on the HSWP's policy-making Politburo in 1975. Politicians who worked with Losonczi remember him as a somewhat remote figure who kept his cards close to his chest.

Pal Losonczi retired in 1987 - the year before a palace revolution removed Kadar from his leadership of the HSWP, which was followed in 1989 by the ending of the Communists' monopoly on power. He stayed out of the political turmoil that accompanied Hungary's transition from Communist rule to democracy.

For many Hungarians Losonczi's last public act came in 1992 when he asked his local Somogy county council to return to him the valuable collection of presents he had received from all over the world during his term as president. Two years earlier he had handed over the collection to the council to be put on display. But subsequently he asked for a payment - a request the council refused - after his special pension privileges had been taken away by parliament, reducing his income by half.

Apart from that incident, Losonczi lived out his retirement in self-imposed isolation, even refusing, politely but firmly, to give interviews. But in Barcs and the region around it he remained a much-respected figure to the end.

Gabriel Partos