Rio de Janeiro — Gen. Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo sounds for all the world like a champion of democracy as he begins today his final year as President of Brazil. ''I was aware of what was happening in my mandate when I committed myself to making this country a democracy,'' the President said in his state of the union address to the National Congress last week. ''I will not go back on a sworn commitment.''
Later on, he ventured, ''There has never been in this country so much liberty.''
But President Figueiredo may well be backpedaling as he takes his final bows. In ticking off an 11-point checklist of what Brazilians need in this era of crisis, he skipped over one popularly perceived necessity: the right to vote for the person who will succeed him in 1985.
That cause has in the last two months pulled together close to a million people in demonstrations from backwater Amazon towns to megalopoli like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
The number may more than double by the time Congress votes on the constitutional amendment to reestablish direct presidential elections this April. The demonstrations have been massive, the largest recorded in a quarter century here.
As though this were not enough, Figueiredo has also had to contend with a growing direct-vote sentiment in his own Social Democratic Party, whose dissidents rallied 30,000 people in Sao Paulo state last month.
This wave of popular politics has increasingly set on edge the country's military rulers whose plans for ''opening'' Brazil to democracy do not include direct presidential elections until 1988 or 1990.
In early February, a worried Figueiredo called in his party's four contesting presidential aspirants - two of whom are amenable to direct elections - for a huddle. In the process he linked the ''direct elections now'' campaign to ''communist'' agitation.
Nor has economic news been heartening. Inflation for February was well over 12 percent, or 230 percent annually, almost double official estimates for the month and the highest ever recorded. Also, a three-day strike last week at Brazil's largest steel mill has tested the government's new wage guidelines of limiting pay increases to 80 percent of the consumer price index.
The strike could be just the first in a series of political and economic skirmishes during the last year of President Figueiredo's embattled tenure.