Last week's transition from military to civilian rule in Brazil was marred by the sudden illness of President-elect Tancredo Neves, but the manner in which the emergency was handled bodes well for the future of that nation's new democracy.
Neves is recovering from emergency surgery for an intestinal inflammation, and is expected to take the presidential oath of office when he leaves the hospital in two to three weeks. In keeping with Brazil's constitution, the formal inaugural ceremony went ahead as scheduled on Friday, with Vice President-elect Jose Sarney taking the oath of office and assuming the powers surrendered by outgoing President Joao Figueiredo, the last in a line of military officers who have controlled Brazil since 1964.
The transition could have been in some jeopardy. Neves was elected president by a coalition of political parties, and, while Neves is a member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, Sarney is a member of the Liberal Alliance. Some members of the Democratic Movement wanted another member of their party to serve as interim president. In the end, they followed the constitution.
The decision to avoid a constitutional crisis is a reflection of Brazil's eagerness to return to democracy after 21 years of military rule, and a tribute to the hopes placed in Neves. The 75-year-old statesman is a popular figure in Brazil, admired for his personal honesty and respected for his political pragmatism. He has said that he will serve only one four-year term, and that one of his principal goals will be to lay the groundwork for his successor to be chosen by popular vote. He was chosen by the nation's Congress under controversial ground rules set by the military.
The other major problem facing Brazil's new government is far more difficult, and may not be fully resolved during Neves' term in office--the economic downturn that the country has suffered because of uncertainty over whether it can pay off a $100-billion foreign debt. Brazil, with one of the most sophisticated economies in the Third World, clearly has the potential to pay its debt. But the government's first task is to calm the fears of international bankers by controlling inflation and imposing austerity without inflicting more hardship than necessary on the country's 130 million people. It will be a tough balancing act, but Neves seems to have both the personal popularity and the political skill to pull it off.
What Brazil needs most, then, is Neves' full recovery, and soon, so that he can begin the process of leading one of the world's largest and most important countries back to democracy and economic recovery.