Rio de Janeiro — Brazil's slow-motion return to democracy has come to a halt.
Its political future hangs in the balance.
If the opposition parties agree to exert self-restraint and refrain from challenging the regime's power, the military may in the 1990s allow the civilians to rule the country.
If the opposition insists on seeking a victory at the ballot come next November, chances are that the military will establish gradually more authoritarian rules and even, if need be, unadulterated dictatorship.
National elections are to take place on Nov. 15. Representatives to state legislatures, mayors, governors, all the federal deputies, and one-third of the senators are to be elected. The new Chamber and the new Senate, plus one representative of each state, are to form an Electoral College in 1984 and to select a new president to succeed Gen. Joao Baptista Figueireido.
According to reliable military sources, the radical wing of the military, mostly its repressive apparatus, representing roughly 25 percent of its high- and middle-echelon officers, was suspicious from the beginning of the ''abertura'' (''opening'') advocated by former President Ernesto Geisel.
As the elections got closer, it became clear, through numerous polls, that the opposition would trounce the regime in November. The opposition would then be able to elect a civilian president in 1984. Realizing this, the military began to stiffen their opposition to the step-by-step process of redemocratization and to urge President Figueireido not to let the country fall into the hands of politicians whom they consider to be ''irresponsible'' or ''radical.''
Torn between the opposition, which claims overwhelming popular support and condemns military ''blackmail,'' and his brother officers, who are not ready to surrender their power, President Figueireido has chosen a compromise solution.
One year before the elections, he has changed the rules of the game by pushing through Congress a set of restrictive electoral rules that should handicap the opposition and assure the government-controlled, ultraconservative Social Democratic Party (PDS) of victory next November.
This, in turn, would guarantee that the president chosen in 1984 would be another general, most likely Gen. Otavio Medeiros, who is at present chief of the SNI (Brazil's CIA and FBI combined).
Gen. Golbery do Couto e Silva, who under President Geisel had mapped the strategy of the ''abertura,'' had replaced the two existing parties (the pro-government National Renewal Alliance, ARENA, and the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement) by a plurality of parties in the hope that a divided opposition would enable the regime to stay in power.
The three main parties were: the PDS (right-wing, pro-government); the PMBD, the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (a coalition of liberals and social democrats); and the PP, the moderate-conservative Popular Party.
When it became clear that not only the working and middle classes but even powerful industrialists and bankers had turned their back on the goverment and that the November elections could turn out to be a plebiscite on the military regime, President Figueireido promulgated new rules that all but destroyed the PP and clipped the wings of the PMBD. They strike at the voters' freedom of choice:
* They must choose their candidates for the state legislature, for mayor and governor, and for federal representive and senator from a single slate. It so happens that the pro-government PDS is the only party able to present candidates in the rural areas where economic and political life is heavily dependent on federally funded projects.
* Parties are not allowed to enter into coalitions. This means that in many districts the PDS candidate can be elected with only 20 percent of the vote.
The PMBD and the PP quickly resorted to a countermove and decided to merge. But in many places this merger could be impractical, and many observers say the government will challenge its validity in court.
The abrupt slowdown of Brazil's economy has contributed to the hardening of the military stance. Hard hit by recession, by triple-digit inflation, and by high-interest servicing of a $60 billion foreign debt, Brazil's economy recorded zero growth in 1981. It is even expected to decline slightly in 1982. The combined impact of the loss of jobs and of inflation stiffened labor militancy.
Strikes in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte, added to the spectacle of student demonstrations (former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was heckled in Brasilia by students protesting his $25,000 speaking fee) have hardened the military's determination to stay in power ''at least for another 10 years,'' as one well-placed general said.
Moderate pro-government politicians, such as Magalhaes Pinto, former governor of the key state of Minas Geraes, say the important thing ''is to keep the political process alive, to give the military more time to get used to civilian rule.''
Others, in the opposition, like Ulisses Guimaraes, president of the PMBD, say , ''We will not learn from Poland's example. The military say democracy yes, but not now. There is no reason to allow them to decide when the people are ripe to govern themselves and to choose their own leaders.''