Obituary: Jozsef Antall
Tuesday 14 December 1993
JOZSEF ANTALL, the quiet man of Hungarian politics, proved to be the most durable prime minister in post-Communist Central Europe. Stolid conservatism and total lack of charisma were the qualities he flaunted, and in a country that had grown weary of living in interesting times, they were a vote-winner. In May 1990 the slogan 'the calm force' propelled his party to a landslide victory in the first free elections since the Second World War. Antall, a historian by profession, was given the mandate to steer Hungary through the turbulent waters of history, from Communism to democracy.
He had the perfect training and family background for the job. His father, Jozsef senior, had distinguished himself during the war by saving thousands of Jews, Poles and captured Allied soldiers from the clutches of the Nazis. After the war, he served for two years in the coalition government, representing the winners of the first free elections, the conservative Smallholders' Party. As darkness descended on Hungary once again and a reign of terror sought to extinguish all forms of opposition, the Antalls were labelled as 'class enemies' and shared the tribulations of thousands of their free-thinking compatriots.
The 1956 uprising found Jozsef junior carrying on his father's torch. He threw himself into politics, helping to revive the Smallholders' Party and becoming chairman of the revolutionary committee of the secondary school where he worked as teacher. When the Soviet tanks rolled in he was arrested, sacked from his job and was again deprived of his citizen's rights. It was not until the liberal 1970s that he was given a passport to travel to the West. A marked man, he kept away from controversy by specialising in medical history, beavering away in a dingy office at the Semmelweis Museum of Medical History in Budapest. The politics lived on in the privacy of his home, a hub in the informal network that was slowly emerging in Hungary in anticipation of the Communists' demise. But caution kept Antall out of the limelight, and even when political groups began to mushroom in the fertile soil of Communist decay, Antall stayed in obscurity. Thus he kept away from the historic founding meeting in 1987 of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), and shunned the Smallholders' agonising rebirth. Realising that the Smallholders were nothing more than a motley collection of bickering old men, he decided that the MDF offered him the best chance of becoming Prime Minister. He joined the MDF and quickly took it over, steering it away from the course set by its founders - a group of Communist reformers and populist-nationalist intellectuals - and towards a conservative identity.
By 1989 Antall took centre stage, offering his historical insight in negotiations with leaders of the main political parties about the Communists' terms for surrender. The outcome was probably the best constitution in post-Communist Eastern Europe, held together by checks and balances that have, by and large, stood the test of time.
In the ensuing elections Antall's philosophy was vindicated: the MDF promising a peaceful transition without upheaval, witch-hunts and civil strife emerged as the largest party in parliament. He formed a centre-right coalition with the Smallholders and Christian Democrats, but it was a coalition in name only. All decisions were made by the MDF, and ultimately by Antall himself. He presided over the cabinet like an old-fashioned headmaster, listening attentively to arguments, luring ministers into a false belief that what they said mattered. In the end, the Antall view of the world always prevailed.
Even though he has been suffering from cancer for three years, he left his imprints on every policy document. In a notoriously unstable region, Hungary remained a haven of tranquility as three of her neighbours - Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia - disintegrated; the latter plunging into civil war. Despite growing pressure on the Hungarian minorities in Serbia, Slovakia and Romania, Antall resisted calls from his own party for a tougher line and continued to strive for dialogue. A treaty he negotiated with Ukraine renouncing Hungarian territorial claims points the way forward for Eastern Europe, but it was signed in the teeth of bitter opposition at home.
Not so successful was Antall's intervention in the economic domain. The MDF, more concerned with national and spiritual values, was never interested in the economy, and Antall shared this disdain. Inheriting a reasonably sound economy from the Communists, Antall's frequently reshuffled mediocre team have staggered from one crisis to another, blundering from an interventionist philosophy to an extreme form of sink-or-swim dogma which left devastation in its wake. As the Czech Republic and Poland emerge from the ruins of post-Communist transformation, Hungary is still grappling with bloated deficits, rising unemployment and double- digit inflation.
Antall's other negative legacy is a national broadcasting medium that is as tighly controlled now as it was under the Communists. Even before becoming prime minister, he showed unnatural sensitivity to what was being said about him, occasionally remonstrating with journalists who had failed to strike the correct note of flattery. Once in power, he moved trusted yes-men - often former Communist propagandists - into key positions at television and radio. Earlier this year even press reviews were banned from radio because most of the printed media are opposed to the government.
As Antall's health deteriorated he had to face an internal challenge from the nationalist wing of his party. Characteristically, the prime minister refused to rise to the bait, even when the rhetoric plunged into outright xenophobia and the nationalists began to plunder Hungary's rich anti-Semitic vein. Antall finally expelled the extremists earlier this year, by which time their antics had isolated them from most of their sympathisers.
Despite his success in preserving party unity in the teeth of the nationalist challenge, the MDF was doomed, even with Antall at its head. The pendulum, driven by dissatisfaction with the economy, is swinging back to the Left, and the MDF is facing oblivion. But Antall's democratic instincts would have been strong enough to rejoice at leading his country to the first orderly change of government through elections due next May which he was certain to lose.
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