Brazil's return to democratic rule has been seriously upset by the illness of President-elect Tancredo de Almeida Neves -- and now that he has had a fourth operation there is increasing doubt that Neves will ever take office. The spotlight thus shifts to Vice-President Jos'e Sarney. But questions about his ability over the long pull to govern Latin America's largest nation are being raised. As acting president, he clearly lacks the wide popular and legislative support that Mr. Neves has.
At this moment of political crisis, however, Mr. Sarney does have the nominal backing of the carefully crafted political coalition put together by Neves.
``He has our support,'' says Ulysses Guirmaraes, the president of the Chamber of Deputies and one of Neves's closest advisers. ``The republic is not on holiday, nor is it in recess,'' he adds.
But it remains to be seen how long such attitudes will continue. Although it is low-key, there is incipient grumbling about Sarney's role. This criticism seems likely to grow, and comes mainly from the left wing of Neves's Brazilian Democratic Movement.
``We elected Dr. Tancredo, not Sarney to lead us,'' complains one of these leftists, a leading member of the political alliance put together by Neves (who is popularly called Dr. Tancredo). This politician refused comment on what other course Brazil could take at the moment.
``There frankly was no other choice,'' says legislative leader Guirmaraes. He is apparently trying to stave off political carping and keep the coalition from splintering.
Sarney is not a member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, and has served as chairman of the military-backed Democratic Social Party. He left that party in the leadup to the Jan. 15 election and was chosen as the Brazilian Democratic Movement's vice-presidential candidate because of his political experience and because his presence added strength to the delicately constructed coalition.
However, political analysts say the vice-president has moved with considerable adroitness in carving out a role as interim leader. He frequently points out that he serves in an interim position only, that the presidency belongs to Dr. Tancredo.
This tactic has helped restrain some criticism and bought Sarney both time and at least temporary loyalty from the coalition, diplomatic and political analysts say.
But time may be short. Brazil's economic problems are not going to go away, and Sarney may have to take some difficult political and economic decisions. Neves's illness came at the moment Brazil is to begin talks on renogotiating its whopping $100 billion foreign debt.
Additionally, the new civilian government inherits from the military a virtually bankrupt treasury -- something that puts a heavy burden on the new leaders.
``The inheritance of the new government is so tragic that acting-President Sarney will have to lay it squarely before the nation,'' says Sen. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the government's chief congressional leader. ``He is going to have to implement an austerity program that will be distasteful to most Brazilians.''
He also is faced with a soaring inflation rate that hit 223 percent in 1984 and is estimated at 250 percent for 1985.
Whether Sarney can retain the public and congressional support necessary to take action on these difficult problems will depends in large measure on the ability and willingness of coalition leaders to go along with them.
The military, which went back to the barracks after the March 15 swearing-in of Sarney, is warily watching the situation. It signals that it has no plans to return to power -- and given Brazil's staggering economic problems, it is undoubtedly glad to let the civilians wrestle with them.
There is growing speculation that Neves may never take office.
He is reportedly in regular contact with Sarney, but exercising no leadership. He won't be inaugurated as President until he leaves the hospital. Doctors attending him refuse to say when that will be.