The crushing defeat of a constitution that would have allowed the Uruguayan military to rule under a system of legalized coups has left both winners and losers befuddled and the country still a long distance from democracy.

"There is no sign of the troops going back to the barracks," one political analyst said Monday after the referendum on a proposed new constitution.

With only a handful of votes still uncounted, the document had been rejected by more than 55 per cent of the nearly 1.9 million people who took part in the plebiscite.

What they turned their backs on was a constitution that provided for a one-candiate presidential election next year. Further, it gave the three armed forces commanders-in-chief power to overturn any act or policy of the legislature, judiciary and even the president.

Although it had appeared likely in the last days before the vote that the proposal would be defeated, one foreign analyst said, "There was no indication the government had any plans for losing and certainly not by the magnitude it did."

None of the generals or their civilian allies were available for public comment. And there were no signs or demonstrations in the streets of Montevideo to make what was certainly a most inportant event.

"Everybody is trying to sort out what happened," a Uruguayan politician said, "and the people are uncertain about what goes on next."

According to several diplomats and local politicians, nothing is likely to happen, at least not for some time.

"I suspect that after a few days of licking their wounds, the military will begin a process to find a new constitution that may be accepted," one analyst said. "This will take a minimum of one year and perhaps three years at the outside."

But whether the generals will do even this is far from certain. Reports suggested that some of them have decided that in losing they had really won.

By this reasoning, the people who voted no were actually saying that they wanted no change from the present system, under which the generals have ruled by decree since taking full power in 1973.

"The people wanted to keep the Army in office, so they rejected the constitution which provided for an elected president and legislature," one proponent of this theory said.

The leaders of the forces that defeated the constitution are believed incapable of mounting any sustained pressure to force the regime off whatever course it chooses.

No meetings have been held to decide on tactics to rally the people in an effort to take advantage of the government's loss. A European diplomat said the opposition forces never looked beyond the vote itself. "They built no mechanisms that are albe to function on an ongoing basis to keep up the pressure," he said.

One analyst hailed the vote as "a tremendous rejection of a revolutionary effort to subordinate the political life."

"The constitution would have made the military a fourth and superior branch of the government. It took a lot of guts to say no," he explained.

Furthermore, he said, "the military has to be given a lot of credit. The election was fair and clean under a system devised by the armed forces themselves. They could have cheated or delayed the vote or have done anything else they wanted but they didn't. That was great."

The same analyst cautioned, however, that "there is a danger of overblowing the democratic aspect of all this. Nothing substantial or objective has changed. The generals are not about to give up power."