Janos Kadar, one of contemporary communism's longest serving leaders -- and in many ways its most successful -- has taken a step toward retirement. At the conclusion of the Hungarian party congress last week, Mr. Kadar was elected to another five-year term in his leadership post in Hungary's Communist Party.
But an unprecedented step was also taken: the appointment of a deputy who will shoulder some of his day-to-day work load. There is no similar post in the East bloc.
Kadar is one of East Europe's longest serving leaders. Only Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov and maverick Albania's Enver Hoxha have served longer in office.
Mr. Zhivkov has been party chief since 1954. At 74 years of age, he is a year older than Kadar. Mr. Hoxha, also Zhivkov's age, was a founding member of the Albanian party in World War II and has run it ever since. There are growing signs that he is preparing to make way for a younger man.
Kadar took over his party's leadership in October 1956 during the Hungarian uprising that unseated the former Stalinist regime and the Soviet intervention that toppled the new reformist government (of which Kadar initially had been a member.)
Since then, despite the turncoat shadow under which he took power, Kadar has been able to put his firm stamp on the nation's domestic policies.
For more than two decades, Kadar has built up a popular respect that no other East European party leader enjoys. Under him, the country has developed a more ``open'' society than any other East-bloc country. In many ways, it has a consistently more acceptable living standard than the others, despite the economic standstill of the last two years.
Economics were very much a part of the discussion at the party congress, which ended last Thursday.
At the congress, Kadar's title was changed from party first secretary to general secretary. It would have been anomolous, it was said, to name a deputy or second ``first'' secretary. So Kadar's assistant, Karoly Nemeth, was named as deputy general secretary.
Mr. Nemeth is a former head of the Budapest party organization which includes almost a quarter of the nation's party membership (870,000). He has been a full member of the Politburo since 1970.
The appointment of a deputy, a senior party official told the Monitor, came at Kadar's own suggestion. He had said he was ready to carry on as long as the party wished -- ``and the party did wish,'' the official said -- and as long as he is able. Kadar, the official said, suggested that a deputy would undertake some of his day-to-day work and act for him when he is on vacation or resting.
Kadar's health appears not to be in question.
But it was made clear that the selection of Nemeth, who is 11 years younger than Kadar, does not mean that he is seen as Kadar's successor. The appointment is regarded more as recognition of his long service as one of the party's ablest leading members.
Ultimate promotion is more likely to fall upon one of a number of younger Kadar associates and/or relative newcomers to the top echelon.
These include people like Ferenc Havasi, a Politburo member and one of the most realistic experts in the party's economic team; Laszlo Marothy, at 42, the Politburo's youngest member and a likely prime minister; Matyas Szuros, a key foreign affairs specialist; and Karoly Grosz, a newcomer to the Politburo. All are commited ``Kadarists.''
Mr. Grosz treated the congress to one of its most candid analyses of the country's economic situation and the social tensions that have recently arisen over problems such as the economic plight of Hungary's pensioners, the lag in workers' wages behind private-sector earnings, and the inflated profits of entrepreneurs.
Kadar's superior standing, personal and political, however, was evidenced at the end of the conference when he made his final policy pronouncement.
The warmest and most demonstrative acclamations came from the delegates when he reaffirmed Hungary's line of economic reform and his resolve to apply its principal provisions more rigorously, even in politically sensitive domestic areas such as pay hikes and wage differentials closely aligned to better work performance.
``Full employment, yes,'' he said, ``but efficient employment.''
Speaking extemporaneously Thursday, Kadar was at pains to emphasize how Hungary's economic reform will be applied over the next five years and to indicate the more open nature of government and the wider general participation visualized in all public affairs.
Hungary's economic difficulties in recent years had given rise to speculation that there was opposition to Kadar's policies from ``radicals'' or ``rightists'' within the party.
Certainly mounting public discontent has been apparent and it was freely acknowledged -- and accepted as justified -- by Kadar and other leading spokesmen, as well as being reflected in comments from the floor.
But if there has been controversy over the reform and its momentum, it did not surface.
It is beyond doubt that Kadar has secured a unanimous consensus and mandate from the party in support of his own line.
The big effort now -- and the vital one -- will be to win the public over.
Kadar emphasized that there will be no return to discredited methods -- in the economy, inside the party, or in other fields.
Some recent statements and actions have suggested a firmer ideological line in dealing with a small but lively dissident intellectual minority. But this was not as sharply spelled out at the congress.
On the economy, Kadar repeated his warning that ``remuneration must be determined according to work done.''
Wages, salaries, and allowances must be correlated with performance, he said. But however much the pay increases might be merited, the funds and reserves to cover them must first be created, he said.