Brazilians have suffered an unkind blow in the death of their recently elected but uninaugurated president, Tancredo Neves. Mr. Neves, who endured a month-long medical ordeal, had appointed only some of the top members of the government he intended to run before he fell ill. In the month since, the man elected vice president with him, Jose Sarney, has taken some further steps to get the democratic system and the new government in place. But Mr. Sarney, necessarily, moved slowly, waiting for public pressure to build for him to take actions and proceeding with immense caution.

There were a couple of reasons for this. The obvious one was that the vice president (who became, while Mr. Neves was ill, the acting president) did not wish to appear overeager or in any way ambitious to assume Mr. Neves' place. Another reason was that Mr. Sarney, who came over from the military government's party to run with Mr. Neves against a man that military government favored, does not begin to enjoy the popularity or support that Tancredo Neves did. Mr. Sarney will now have a huge political chore to accompany his formidable task of governing.

Although there seems to be no prospect of an effort to revoke or overturn the new democratic dispensation, there will be much controversy as to how soon direct elections for a successor government should be held. There will probably be an effort to have them held very soon. And there are also politicians in Brazil of Tancredo Neves' party who are stronger and more popular than Mr. Sarney, politicians who will be very much trying to arrange things for the new president.

None of this will make Mr. Sarney's ability to preside any easier, and the new president has much to do. Brazil, as other countries in the region, is obliged to fight a ferocious inflation with steps that are alienating workers and threatening a part of the population that is already inordinately poor. Its export earnings, spectacularly high last year, may be sharply reduced this year. Brazil has sent one failed letter of intent after another to the International Monetary Fund, and is now in another round of negotiations with it. The emergency measures that have enabled the country to carry its debts so far will not be adequate indefinitely -- particularly if and when the North American economy, with its gigantic demand for Latin exports, begins to slow down.

Governing Brazil is going to require immense skill and steadiness. It is going to require a high degree of trust between the people at the top and the people at the bottom. It is not an opportune moment for a long hiatus or a debilitating quarrel over who's in charge and who possesses the title to legitimate authority. The country's financial position requires decisions that cannot be postponed. The sudden death of the man who won the election, in the moment of his triumph, puts enormous tests ahead of Brazil and its new democracy. But Brazil and its political leadership have shown, over the past year, that they are capable of great things.