Obituary: Jozsef Antall

Article excerpt

"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. …