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Antall leaves hope for 'rising nation'

JOZSEF ANTALL, Hungary's first post-Communist Prime Minister, died yesterday at the age of 61 after a long battle against cancer. His position as head of government was assumed temporarily by Peter Boross, the Interior Minister, who has been serving as acting Prime Minister for several weeks. It was not immediately clear whether Mr Antall's death would result in the bringing forward of elections, scheduled for mid-1994.

Mr Antall's illness was diagnosed shortly after his centre-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF) won the country's first free elections for more than 40 years in 1990. Although senior figures in the HDF played down the seriousness of his illness, the end appeared to be close on Saturday when Mr Antall was visited by President Arpad Goncz, who presented him with the Grand Cross of the Hungarian Republic for developing Hungary's constitutional order, restoring its international standing and helping its integration into Europe.

In what was effectively his political testament, Mr Antall declared in a letter to the national leadership of his party a day before he died that Hungary was at last on the mend and that, after decades of Communism, the private sector of the economy now accounted for more than half the national income. 'Looking back,' he wrote, 'we see a rising nation and a country renewing itself.'

Certainly many give Mr Antall credit for ensuring that, unlike many east European countries, Hungary emerged as an island of relative stability and prosperity in the difficult period of transition that followed the collapse of Communist rule. Mr Antall was the region's longest-serving post-Communist head of government and, under his leadership, Hungary attracted considerably more Western investment than its neighbours.

But the former historian had his critics. At home, he was accused of being arrogant and aloof and of not taking kindly to criticism in the press. Abroad, his oft-quoted claim to represent 'all Hungarians' caused apoplexy in Romania, Slovakia and former Yugoslavia, all of which contain sizable Hungarian minorities which became terrified of what they saw as Budapest's territorial ambitions.

The HDF suffered a damaging internal row this year, which ended in the establishment of a breakaway faction, and faces a strong challenge from the resurgent Hungarian Socialist Party.