The succession to Janos Kadar has been discussed by Hungarians in all walks of life with an openness without precedent in the communist world. That, to a considerable extent, is part of Mr. Kadar's own reform efforts. Kadar came to power after Soviet intervention crushed Hungary's reform movement in 1956. After five years of ``consolidation'' against the so-called ``counterrevolution'' - including at least 70 death sentences and the jailing of thousands of dissidents - he set another course.
In 1961, he reversed the Stalinist dictum that ``those who are not with us are enemies'' with a new principle for communist rule in Hungary: ``He who is not against us, is with us.'' The new formula gave Hungarians a more open life style than anywhere in the East bloc.
Kadar permitted travel to the West and limited freedom of expression. He provided openings for private enterprise, which soon produced up to one fifth of the country's gross national product in food and services. He was also the first communist leader to attempt to replace orthodox centralization with market regulators, the ``New Economic Mechanism'' of 1968.
In the process, Janos Kadar became the most liked and respected national leader in Eastern Europe.
But world recession in the 1970s plus Hungary's inability to export enough to pay for essential investment in Western technology put a sudden brake on reform. Kadar came to be viewed as a symbol of austerity and over-aged leadership. And critics both in and out of the party called for change.
Kadar was one of three East European leaders who sought to give communist rule a ``human face.'' His was the success story.
He has been in power almost for 32 years. His immediate predecessor, Imre Nagy, survived even fewer than 32 days, and Alexander Dubcek lasted only 32 weeks in Czechoslovakia before the Soviets moved in.
Why Kadar survived - and succeeded - is explained at least in part by his background and a shrewd sense of geopolitical reality.
He was born illegitimately in 1912 in the Austro-Hungarian city port of Fiume (now Yugoslav Rijeka). His first six years were spent in foster care in a Hungarian village until his mother was able to make a home for him in Budapest.
``The first piece of Marxist education I had,'' Kadar has said, ``was from my foster father who told me never to forget that the child of poor persons has always to work.''
The discipline acquired at an early age served him in good stead during the Stalin years. He rose steadily in the party ranks, only to be imprisoned under Hungary's pre-war rightist dictatorship and again, after the war, under the country's native Stalinist, Matyas Rakosi. Stalin's death and the subsequent de-Stalinisation process disposed of Rakosi.
Kadar took over as party leader with Soviet backing after the ill-fated reform movement of 1956 and the brutal execution of Hungarian leader Imre Nagy. The latter event shadowed Kadar for a long time. To some extent it still does, and his role in Nagy's execution has yet to be explained.
In time, his modesty of style won over many who saw him as the traitor of that period. He consistently rejected a ``personality cult'': no portraits in public places or offices, no escort cars when he drove around town.
It explains why, though the old rapport has faded and older as well as younger Hungarians now want him to step down, the respect remains.
``He has served Hungary well,'' says a younger generation party official. ``But today's problems and conditions need a younger man. We don't want a `sacrifice.' We want Kadar to go with dignity and honor. But the climate is ripe for change. We have already achieved something with reform. Now we can take a peaceful new step - without revolution.''
The writer covered the Hungarian uprising and has regularly reported on Hungary ever since.