Rio de Janeiro — Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo is an improbable exponent of democracy.
Brazil's fifth soldier-president in succession and a military officer for more than 33 years, Figueiredo was if anything considered a lightweight, and certainly not a trailblazer, when he assumed the presidency 3 1/2 years ago.
Yet Joao Figueiredo is as much responsible as anyone for Brazil's move toward civilian, constitutional rule.
''We have to make this country a democracy,'' he says.
Elections today for almost every public office except the presidency are a testimony to Figueiredo's singleminded determination to lead Brazil in that direction.
Earlier steps he initiated include the lifting of most censorship, re-activation of political party activity, and amnesty for many government opponents who were exiled or whose civil rights were curtailed. Figueiredo calls this liberalization program aberturam (opening). If fully implemented, it will send the military back to the barracks in 1985 after 21 years of rule.
Democracy certainly seemed to be on every Brazilian's lips as the boisterous election campaign wound to a frenzied conclusion over the weekend with parades and rallies.
For many - perhaps even the majority of Brazil's 125 million people - the prospect of democracy brings fresh hope that life here will improve.
Brazilians are a naturally exuberant people. They prove it yearly in their mammoth national Carnival.m But as far as shows are concerned, this election campaign can hardly be topped. It is like Carnival, but with a serious side. Millions of Brazilians have turned out for campaign rallies, speeches, and caravans. They have carefully studied posters, handbills, and election propaganda to understand the platforms and ideas of the candidates.
Who can govern best? they ask earnestly.
''Can he really cut back on unemployment as he promises?'' a man at a rally wondered about Wellington Moreira Franco, a candidate for governor of Rio de Janeiro State.
''He looks honest,'' the man continued. ''I like his manner. But would he be better than Sandra [Cavalcanti, Brazil's best-known woman running for the same post]?
Said another: ''His program is good. But he's got to deal with the angry poor who don't have jobs and won't be happy if [Leonel] Brizola doesn't get the governorship.''
The same sort of discussion has taken place all over the nation about candidates. This sort of interest gives many Brazil-watchers hope that the vote will be what Figueiredo says he wants it to be: the first major step in a genuine quest for democracy in Latin America's biggest nation.
Jornal do Brasil, a leading Rio de Janeiro daily, commented editorially that ''for the first time, we are having elections with content, meaning, and purpose.''
Dom Eugenio de Araujo Sales, Rio de Janeiro's respected Roman Catholic cardinal, has called the elections ''a sign of maturity.''
But some Brazilians are more cautious, aware of Brazil's uneven democratic performance and aware that Figueiredo cut his political teeth in a military dictatorship.
In the past, Brazil's millions often have been ignored by those in power, civilians and military. So despite the election enthusiasm, many are skeptical about today's voting.
''All we can do is hope that the election will lead to democracy,'' says Marcelo Cerqueira, a candidate from Rio de Janeiro for federal deputy. Mr. Cerqueira notes that too many of Brazil's 125 million people are illiterate and destitute. ''We have got to find more ways to include them in the new, democratic Brazil we are hoping for,'' he says.
Says Justice Minister Ibrahim Abi-Ackel: ''The big job ahead of us . . . is to find ways to make democracy meaningful in social justice for all Brazilians.''
There already is some evidence of movement toward social justice here - a social mobility nonexistent in most of Latin America. But the military is still showing some muscle, even as it readies to yield to civilian rule in 1985. The Army and police have interfered in the campaign, roughing up some candidates and supporters, jailing others, finding pretexts to prevent some political rallies.
Opposition-party candidates do not have unrestricted rights to advertise on TV - while members of the military-backed Social Democratic Party apparently do have them.
And voters are not being allowed to split their votes among parties on the ballot. Government supporters hope this will help the PDS in the major states - Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul.
Ironically, it probably won't and the pro-government party is expected to lose and lose big in these states.
Will the military let the vote stick? And will the opposition perform as a responsible critic of government?
No one knows for sure. If General Figueiredo has his way, however, the military will honor the result. The second question is a difficult one. Brazil's politicians in the past have not been known for honest politicking.
But Brazil is a different nation than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. The military has brought Brazilians closer together through better roads, railroads, and the air travel. Some say Brazil shows more national maturity - perhaps because of the economic development of the '70s.
Some of the old political faces are still the dominant ones. But many Brazilians think they, too, have changed. And there is a feeling here that Brazil at last has an opportunity - and a deep desire - to not only test the waters of democracy, but also to swim in them permanently.