Brazil's embattled leader gets breathing space for economic fight. Congress vote to keep presidential system works to Sarney's benefit

President Jos'e Sarney's administration has been given a new lease on life - and another shot at trying to shore up Brazil's troubled economy. The Brazilian Congress voted late Tuesday, after months of debate, to keep the presidential system of government and to grant presidents a five year term.

Government officials see the 344-to- 212 decision on the presidential system as a mandate for continuity - although Mr. Sarney's policies have failed to ease Brazil's economic crisis.

``Now at least there is a clear course for the next two years,'' a top government aide says.

Tuesday's decision constituted one of the most important taken by Congress as it drafts a new constitution to solidify Brazil's 1985 return to civilian rule. Some congressmen, prompted in part by popular frustration with Sarney's performance, wanted a parliamentary system, in which a prime minister would hold office only as long as he had the confidence of members of congress. Others wanted a presidential system, but pushed to cut Sarney's term to four years, and hold elections this fall.

Whether the country could or should undergo such a sweeping political change when beset by economic problems was the main issue in the debate.

Inflation is now running close to 20 percent a month, and most wages, though indexed to inflation, are not keeping up. Early this year, Brazil moved to end its moratorium on its $70 billion debt to private foreign banks, and is now negotiating to reschedule it. Brazil also begins talks next month with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for stand-by loans.

But IMF and bankers' approval of any new deal depends on Brazil's ability to tackle inflation. This, in turn, hinges on the government's political power to cut the budget deficit, which has ballooned since Sarney took office.

Government officials say Tuesday's vote removed much of the uncertainty about the future of the Sarney government, providing it with new strength to take unpopular measures to cut spending, such as pay cuts for federal workers. New measures are expected to be announced soon, a Planning Ministry official says.

An attempt to freeze federal workers' salaries earlier this month failed, because of opposition at all levels of the bureaucracy and within the military. The government did, however, manage to freeze its lending to states, municipalities, and federally owned companies.

``Current policy will be maintained,'' said Adroaldo Moura da Silva, a former officer with the semi-official Banco do Brasil. ``It's a victory for Sarney.''

To be sure, a slim chance exists that Sarney will not stay in office for the five-year presidential term voted on Tuesday. The applicability of the new constitution to the current government will be formally decided only at the end of the process. But most politicians and analysts agree that the likelihood of treating the Sarney government differently from all future governments - by cutting the term to four years - is extremely small.

Most analysts were surprised by the large margin which won the day for Sarney. Many expected a decision to come only by a small margin. Some even speculated neither option would garner the minimum 280 votes to carry.

A last-minute lobbying effort by pro-presidential state governors and Sarney loyalists accounted for the big vote favoring him, say politicians and analysts.

The vote, says the government aide, ``demonstrated the power of conservatism'' in Brazil, of ``people who want to do things in a sensible way rather than an emotional way.'' The source added that the elite businessmen and landowners, plus the military, had rallied to support Sarney in their own self-interest.

``It's easier to control a president and harder to control a whole parliament,'' the source says.

Pro-parliamentary academics said they were disappointed in the outcome of the vote, but held hope for the future. ``Two hundred twelve votes are not so few,'' says Bolivar Lamounier, a political scientist. ``There will be new presidential crises ... Maybe we will [adopt] a parliamentary system peacefully in the future.''

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