Moments after Tancredo Neves was elected president by Brazil's elite electoral college, pandemonium erupted in this impoverished little town half a continent away.

Church bells, fireworks, car horns and a samba band quickly drowned out the election broadcasts from Brasilia. Then the people of this area -- dark-skinned subsistence farmers, wealthy white cattle ranchers, gaunt, hungry children and even the military government's mayor -- poured out into the brick-paved streets for a bout of drinking and singing that went on through the night.

It has been a long time since there was anything to celebrate in Bezerros or the rolling scrubland around it. Thousands here died or were driven off their land during a recent five-year drought. Even a year later water is so short that it must be trucked into the town each day.

While much of Brazil has modernized rapidly under military rule, this region has languished in the hemisphere's worst poverty. Seven out of 10 children are malnourished; more than half the population is illiterate. Seventy-five percent of workers still earn less than $25 a month.

Yet here, as throughout Brazil's Northeast, there is hope that the election in the far-off capital last month will open the way for change after 21 years of military rule. "People believe that a democratic movement can bring development," said Ronaldo Souta Mayor, a municipal official. "Sometimes, it's worth counting on the politicians."

Nowhere in Brazil has the election of Neves, the 74-year-old leader of the military government's opposition, created higher expectations than in the vast and impoverished Northeast, an area three times the size of France with a population of some 36 million.

"The Northeast has not been a priority for the country for 25 years," said Marlo Jacob de Melo, the superintendent of the regional development organization Sudene. "Now we have the chance to fight politically for what we deserve."

Though nominally dominated by the military-backed Social Democratic Party, the 10 northeastern states were a key foundation of Neves' victory. Nine of their 10 governors broke with the Social Democrats to support the opposition ticket, leading a party split that upset the military's carefully constructed electoral system.

In return, the governors received Neves' promise that the Northeast will be a "first priority" in his government. "We know that the Northeast needs special treatment, and we realized that with a military-technocratic government, we would never receive it," said Roberto Magalhaes, the governor of Pernambuco state. "But in a government run by politicians, you can do that."

The degree of the change may become one of the most telling indications of how far Neves' broad and unwieldy political alliance lives up to its promises of reform. Like Neves, each of Brazil's five military presidents since 1964 publicly promised to stimulate the Northeast out of its economic and social backwardness.

Nevertheless, a trip from the modernized centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to the arid rural backlands here resembles a journey from central Europe to central Africa. While it holds 30 percent of the country's population, the Northeast has only 15 percent of Brazil's wealth and its per-capita income is less than half the national average.

Infant mortality here is as much as 150 percent higher than zones of the urban south and exceeds that of Haiti, Zaire, Mozambique and other Third World nations with only a fraction of Brazil's overall wealth. During the recent drought, mortality rates increased by as much as 30 percent, according to local studies.

To some extent, the Northeast's poverty has been dictated by its poor soils, erratic climate, scarce resources and cyclical, multiyear droughts that have decimated its agricultural base and killed tens of thousands. But, charged a recent study of the region by Brazil's Roman Catholic Church, "the principal problem is the growing impoverishment of the population due to structural injustice."

The church study showed that government policies have only widened divisions of wealth and land ownership. According to census figures, 1.6 million farmers in the region, or 67 percent of the total, own only 5 percent of the land. The richest 1 percent of the Northeast's population, which controlled 10.5 percent of the area's wealth in 1970, expanded their share to nearly 30 percent by 1980.

For the Northeast's political leaders, these failures have been exacerbated by the shifting of control over government aid and development programs from local leaders and Congress to administrators in Brasilia. These planners, critics say, focused on stimulating industry and large-scale industrial crop farming in the Northeast, often to the detriment of poor small farmers.

"Federal programs ended up reflecting the traditional interests of the south rather than the local needs," said Congressman Paulo Lustosa. "The Northeast got everything it didn't need. You can go out into the countryside now and find little towns that have direct international telephone service and color television, but people are dying of hunger and thirst."

Even elected officials from the government's own Social Democratic Party found themselves ignored by the military's planners. One ranking state government official noted that governors, who were popularly elected in 1982, sometimes had to work through private businessmen to win access to officials in charge of federal programs for their areas. "The truth is that about a dozen big families controlled most of the credits that were given out," the official said.

Although Neves' election naturally favored the opposition party, the Social Democratic governors figured that backing the ticket would help restore their own influence. Most have now joined the new Liberal Front Party, which split off the Social Democrats and forms part of Neves' Democratic Alliance.

So far, the strategy appears to have paid off. Neves agreed to accept a regional leader, Jose Sarney, as his vice president, and is expected to name at least three other politicians from the region to his Cabinet, including the powerful post of interior minister. In his public statements, Neves has sympathized with the goals of increasing investment in the Northeast and insulating the interior against drought.

The Northeast's leaders, meanwhile, have expanded their strategy for taking advantage of the reopening political system. A task force sponsored by the Sudene and including 14 congressional deputies and senators recently drew up legislation that would require the federal government to devote 30 percent of its investments to the Northeast -- compared to the current level of about 12 percent -- and to shift authority over spending from the federal Planning Ministry to regional councils and Congress.

The very nature of Neves' unusual political alliance, however, appears to have limited the impetus for reform. By absorbing the votes of the Northeast's military-bred political establishment in the electoral college, Neves' coalition has perpetuated the influence of leaders with relatively conservative views, several observers here said.

Thus, a range of Liberal Front leaders say they hope to refocus development aid on poor interior farmers and migrant workers and increase basic food production. But many are opposed to the land reform program seen as essential to development by the military's traditional opposition as well as by many foreign experts.

"Land reform by itself will not resolve anything," said Magalhaes. "You can't give a piece of land to a man who's illiterate and has no credit or technical expertise."

The new government's political need to accommodate its allies has led many activists in the Northeast to expect the switch from military to civilian rule to bring only moderate progress. "We don't have any illusions that the government is going to carry out any fundamental reforms," said Jose Rodriguez, the president of Pernambuco's rural workers' union. "But we do hope that there will be change."