Obituary: Jozsef Antall

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The Independent Online
'PROVIDENTIAL MAN'; the epithet was conferred on the politician who headed the first government after an autocratic regime had collapsed and parliamentarism had been restored in Hungary. The year was 1867 and the politician was Count Julius Andrassy. The epithet holds with equal force for Jozsef Antall, prime minister of Hungary from May 1990 until his death, writes Laszlo Peter (further to the obituary by Imre Karacs, 14 December).

Not that this view is endorsed by many today; it is certainly not shared in the Western press, where Antall has frequently been damned with faint praise or given grudging respect for presiding over political stability. The 'quiet', grey Antall has habitually been contrasted with the colourful 'charismatic' Czech and Polish leaders. Antall's government has, of course, been rightly praised for the political stability it secured and maintained for Hungary in a region where the collapse of Communism set many countries ablaze. But there is more to it than that. There was no revolution in 1989 in Hungary, not even a 'velvet revolution'. Of all the former Soviet satellites, it was in Hungary that violent mass movements were least important in effecting political change. Conferences, party pacts based on consensus, referenda and elections were the Hungarian methods which generated political transformation. The country's long parliamentary tradition once more came alive.

Yet, paradoxically, among the former satellites only in Hungary could the opponents of the Communist regime form a government without a single Communist. The fact that this same government, with a solid parliamentary majority, survived until its head's untimely recent death indicates the size of Antall's achievement.

Among the secrets of his rapid rise in public life was his shining intellect combined with supreme negotiating skill. Both were demonstrated in the Oppositional Round Table conference, where he represented the Hungarian Democratic Forum, and especially in negotiations with the Communist government on the terms of their surrender of power. The product was the revised constitution, announced on 23 October 1989, the anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. That constitution laid the foundation of a liberal democratic order which has proved durable. For the first time in the country's history, notwithstanding vigorous political conflicts, there is no opposition to the existing constitution. Its political architect was the deceased prime minister.

Moral character provides another source for Antall's success. His family background was crucial. The example of his father, a high civil servant, instilled an unusually strong sense of public duty in the son. Antall was one of the very few who throughout the Communist era maintained an intense political interest without compromising himself in any sense. He was destined for a public role; indeed his life was a conscious preparation for it. A law-abiding man throughout, he was imprisoned for organising the Smallholders' Party during the 1956 Revolution (a lawful activity at the time). In the Seventies he kept away from the underground movement, indeed anything unlawful (that included even minor traffic regulations which few bothered to keep). His day came with the terminal crisis of Communism.

Antall's party became the largest in the 1990 parliamentary elections and, having successfully put together a liberal-conservative coalition, he acquired unassailable authority in Parliament. In a few years the Antall government put through a staggering amount of legislation (largely unnoticed by the Western press) which generated social transformation without jeopardising internal stability. Notwithstanding press reports suggesting the opposite, the Hungarian media is free, not gagged. The government's moderate foreign policy has been another success.

Antall was much less successful in turning the economy around. He could do little with the hopelessly backward state industry and the inherited burden of dollars 22bn in foreign debt (the highest in the world per head) which the government rightly decided to honour rather than ask for rescheduling. The country thus retained the confidence of foreign investors (a great advantage) but had to carry the millstone of enormous interest payments. Hence the high taxes coupled with inflation which led to the unpopularity of the government. Antall bore this unpopularity, the deserved criticism as well as the smears, with the equanimity of a leader who, even during his long painful illness, unfailingly gave his best in serving others.

In contrast to most politicians', Antall's reputation is likely to grow in time. He left behind a firmly established liberal democracy based on the rule of law in east central Europe.