OBITUARY: Arpad Goncz, Hungary's first democratically elected president

By bne IntelliNews October 7, 2015

bne IntelliNews -

 

Arpad Goncz, Hungary’s first democratically chosen president after the fall of the Communism, died on October 6 at the age of 93.

Goncz's fatherly manner appealed to many Hungarians, winning him the nickname “Uncle Arpi”. He died surrounded by members of his family, MTI notes, citing the head of the former head of state's secretariat. Announcing the death to lawmakers, Deputy Speaker Istvan Hiller said “he was a legend already during his lifetime". Lawmakers stood for a minute of silence in honour of his memory.

Born in 1922 in Budapest, Goncz graduated from the Pazmany Peter University of Arts and Sciences in 1944. Charged with treason and sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in Hungary's 1956 uprising, Goncz was released in 1963 under a general amnesty aimed at easing tensions with the West.

While in prison he learned English, which helped him make a living in the years that followed. He became known for translating parts of J.R.R Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings", while also working as a welder and an agronomist.

His ascent to politics started in the second half of the 1980s. He was a founding member of one of the main opposition groupings that arose before the collapse of Communism;the Alliance of Free Democrats. In 1989 he became president of the Hungarian League for Human Rights.

The Alliance of Free Democrats finished second to the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum in the 1990 elections, the democratic elections that ended four decades of communist rule. Goncz was elected president by parliament in a compromise between the rival parties. In 1995 he was re-elected for a second five-year term.

While in office, Goncz was the country’s most popular politician. He was credited for using the limited powers of the presidential post to enforce Hungary's fledgling democratic constitution. One of the most prominent cases in which he clashed with the conservative government was his refusal to dismiss the heads of state radio and television. That earned him the praise of press-freedom advocates, but drew criticism from rightwing nationalists who accused him of overstepping his powers.

Ferenc Madl, a conservative, replaced him as president in 2000. In his farewell speech, Goncz asked Madl to be aware of the social divisions created after Hungary began to build democracy. “No one should be measured by any scale other than that of humanity,” Goncz said.

In the following years Goncz largely disappeared from the limelight, devoting himself mainly to charitable causes.

OBITUARY: Arpad Goncz, Hungary's first democratically elected president

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