Brazil holds breath as Congress weighs return to full democracy

Six thousand ground troops, 223 cavalry units, and 116 jeeps and armored cars paraded through the streets of Brazil's capital city, Brasilia, Monday. Nominally this showy flexing of military muscle was a routine celebration marking the 24th anniversary of this modernistic capital. But the parade has far more significance this week.

Tomorrow, the Brazilian National Congress is scheduled to vote on perhaps the most important piece of legislation in its history: a constitutional amendment that would restore direct elections for president. Brazilians have not voted for their president since the military took power 20 years ago.

Millions of Brazilians have taken to the streets in recent months, clamoring for diretas ja, or direct elections now. But President Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo and the military-backed Social Democratic Party have other ideas; namely handpicking the man who will succeed him in 1985. And it seems as if the general would do most anything to see that plan through.

After demonstrations throughout Brazil - including a protest last week of some 1 million people through the streets of the key industrial city of Sao Paulo - Figueiredo declared a ''state of emergency,'' giving the military-backed government nearly imperial powers in the capital and 10 surrounding cities. Some 8,000 soldiers have taken the city. Freedom of assembly has been suspended. Police can enter homes and arrest citizens at will. All press reports, national and foreign, are subject to government censorship. Brasilia's exit and entry ways have been sealed.

The ostensible reason for the President's action: to ''protect'' Congress at this crucial juncture from ''agitation'' and ''coercion'' by enemies within and without. But it is clear the government wants the amendment to fail.

For all the decrees and displays of military might, Figueiredo's soldiers appear to be setting the stage for their own retreat. From backwater Amazon towns to the metropolises of Sao Paulo and Rio, multitudes have hoisted the yellow banners of the campaign for direct elections. In the largest demonstrations in the country's history, the call for diretas ja echoes from platforms in public squares, blinks from soccer stadium scoreboards, and is scrawled in bold graffiti over cement surfaces.

Try as the government might to invoke a fear that anarchy is around the corner if such activities persist, the demonstrations have been Brazil's largest and most peaceful. In Sao Paulo last Tuesday, demonstrators listened to speeches and a symphony orchestra for more than five hours without incident. Opposition leaders have declared Figueiredo's emergency decree unnecessary, unconstitutional, dictatorial, and coercive.

The nation's news media, often reserved in their criticism of the government, have stopped pulling punches:

''The Figueiredo government has been a long and unproductive association of contradictions,'' read one acid editorial in the Jornal do Brasil last week, referring to the President's zigzagging pursuit of democratization.

Opposition parties have called for a day of ''noise'' today - urging citizens in the capital to set off fireworks, bang pots and pans, and string tin cans to their cars.

Despite this surge of public will - and resentment - the pro-diretas congressional amendment is given only marginal chances of clearing the Brazilian legislature. Two-thirds of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate must approve the amendment, which would restore a popular vote for president this November.

The measure will probably clear the Chamber of Deputies, where opposition parties have a clear majority. But the Social Democrats have an edge in the Senate.

The opposition is banking on a victory in the chamber to pull waverers from the PDS over to the pro-diretas cause, but privately they admit that is a long shot.

It's something of an irony that Figueiredo, the last in a series of five retired generals to run this country since the 1964 coup, has until now taken pains to personally marshal this country's path toward democracy.

But he has hesitated on the last leg of the long march. And that has brought his government to a brink.

A number of legislators have defected from the Social Democratic cause. And Figueiredo's own vice-president, Antonio Aureliano Chaves de Mendonca, has admitted his support for diretas ja.

And if the direct elections amendment is defeated, the Congress will take up the President's own amendment: to restore direct elections in 1988. Judging by the mood of his people, that date looks remote.

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