Rio de Janeiro — Brazilians lost the chance to elect their president by a hair's breadth yesterday as the Brazilian National Congress rejected a constitutional amendment to restore the popular vote this year.
Reaction to the congressional outcome in Rio and Sao Paulo - where up to a million demonstrators recently streamed through the streets demanding a direct vote - seemed to be more anticlimax than anguish or rebellion.
A banner headline atop the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper put it succinctly: ''A nation frustrated.''
Small pockets of protesters gathered in a number of cities. A group of demonstrators in Rio observed a symbolic minute of silence to mourn the fallen amendment.
The short-term winner in this development is President Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo, who has said the nation's tender democracy is not yet prepared for direct elections.
The amendment's defeat appears to indicate that, for now, change will emerge not from popular demonstrations but from the negotiating tables within the carpeted chambers of power.
''We're back to Square 1,'' says Amaury de Souza, a political scientist in Rio. ''The movement has left the street level and is entering a stage of negotiations.''
Opposition political leaders, who had passionately pushed the campaign for diretas ja (direct elections now), repaired to congressional anterooms and hotel rooms after the vote by the Chamber of Deputies to try to plot the next election offensive.
With the defeat of the direct elections amendment, the President now must go on the offensive to woo votes for his own amendment. He will need to win many votes from the opposition if his amendment is to win. That amendment would restore direct elections in 1988, set a four-year term for the president with the right to run for reelection, and institute direct elections for mayors.
But opposition members are not in much of a mood to bargain. Many are angered by the government's declaration of emergency powers just before the congressional vote.
Freedom of assembly was suspended. Police gained power to enter homes and arrest citizens at will. The press was subjected to censorship, and troops sealed off the capital.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a leading senator in the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), said even before the congressional vote: ''The violence of the government pulled the carpet out from under whoever was thinking of negotiating.''
Indications are that Figueiredo's Social Democratic Party supporters will have to sweeten the President's amendment with some major concessions. PMDB president Ulysses Guimaraes is still clinging to the demand for direct elections this year, perhaps with a candidate named jointly by government and opposition parties. Another proposal is to have a transition government of two years, headed by a mutually-agreed-upon executive, followed by direct elections in 1986 .