PETROPOLIS, BRAZIL -- Any time Dom Pedro Gastao de Orleans e Braganza wants to see the resplendent crown that his great-grandfather wore as emperor of Brazil, all he has to do is walk across the park in front of his house to the old summer palace.

But he cannot touch it. The four-pound, solid gold crown, encrusted with 639 diamonds and rimmed with 77 pearls, is under glass in what is now Brazil's imperial museum. Dom Pedro, 80, lives in a 12-bedroom outbuilding of the former palace. While he probably will never wear the crown, his dream that the monarchy will be restored is closer to fruition now than at any other time in the 104 years since the Brazilian royal family was ousted and put on a ship for Europe.

On Wednesday, Brazilians will vote on whether their nation should once again be a monarchy or remain a republic. If they vote to stick with the republic, they also will have to choose between the current presidential system and a parliamentary one.

But Brazilians -- buffeted by the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello four months ago and by the ensuing political gridlock that has deepened an economic crisis -- are weary of politics and politicians. The most recent survey by the polling firm Ibope found that two-thirds of Brazil's 90 million eligible voters would just as soon not vote at all.

The poll indicated that despite the country's massive problems, the majority of voters would opt for the status quo, preferring a republic to the monarchy by 68 percent to 12 percent and choosing to stay with a president over a parliament. But other surveys show that more than half of the eligible voters have no idea what the plebiscite is all about.

But if the people do vote the monarchy back in, Dom Pedro stands ready.

"I was educated to do my duty," Dom Pedro said in an interview at his home in Petropolis, a graceful city nestled among the luxuriant Organ Mountains an hour's drive from Rio de Janeiro. "If they ask me to do something for my country, I am ready, but I am not campaigning."

The bushy-browed octogenarian, who looks like and carries himself with the courtly air of Vincent Price, rides an English purebred chestnut to his office most days. He oversees a real estate business that consists of managing the receipts from a 2.5 percent tax on real estate transactions, a covenant established when the royal family's lands were dispersed.

While Dom Pedro is considered to be next in line for the throne on genealogical grounds, there are more than 140 other descendants of the ousted emperor, Dom Pedro II, and several of them have been put forward as likely monarchs.

"I am not a pretender," Dom Pedro declared. "I am the heir."

Wednesday's ballot simply asks voters to choose the form (monarchy or republic) and system (presidential or parliamentary) of government. It leaves the details -- such as what powers would be left for the current Senate, which represents the states in Brazil's federal system, or how a monarch would be chosen -- to be sorted out later.

"A large bloc of the voters is illiterate, and there is no way to convey to them a general theory of the state," said Julian Chacel, director of the Brazilian Economic Institute at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. "Asking the nation to give a yes or a no was a big mistake."

Chacel favors a parliamentary monarchy, arguing that "the historical record of the presidential system in all of Latin America is very poor."

"I have a brother, an M.D., who gets angry when people talk about our republican tradition," Chacel said. "He says, 'Our republican tradition is the coup d'etat!' "

The monarchist camp has made use of that sad truth in its television ads, reminding voters that since the republic was proclaimed on Nov. 15, 1889 -- an act that monarchists call a military coup -- there have been 7 constitutions, 19 military rebellions, 12 states of siege, 3 presidential resignations, 3 presidents impeded from taking office, 4 deposed presidents, 9 authoritarian governments and 2 long periods of dictatorship.

On the other hand, they point out, it was under the monarchy that Brazil gained its independence from Portugal and freed its slaves.

The descendants of Pedro II are mainly divided between the branch of the family whose patriarch lives here in Petropolis and a branch headquartered in Sao Paulo. Among those in the latter, the favorite is Dom Luiz Gastao de Orleans e Braganza, 54, a bachelor who speaks Portuguese with a foreign accent; he was educated in Europe and raised by a mother who spoke to him and his 11 siblings in French and by a nanny who spoke German.

Dom Luiz's supporters argue that the entire Petropolis branch of the family is disqualified from the succession because in 1908 Dom Pedro's father, the oldest grandson of the last emperor, renounced his right to the throne while the family was in exile in Europe. The heir had married a Czech countess, a woman of merely noble, not royal, blood. While this would not have disqualified Dom Pedro's father from assuming the throne under Portuguese-Brazilian tradition, it would have made recognition by the all-important royal houses of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany impossible.

Dom Pedro, whose own marriage is impeccable in that regard (his wife, Maria Esperanza de Bourbon, is the aunt of Spain's King Juan Carlos), says the renunciation is invalid because at the time there was no throne to resign from and it was never submitted to the Brazilian congress anyway.

On the contrary, he argues, it is Dom Luiz who is unacceptable because he is associated with the right-wing Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, and in a parliamentary monarchy, the king should be barred from partisan politics.

"I don't think the monarchy can solve all of Brazil's problems. Its problems are very grave. But the monarchy can help solve them . . . through unity, stability and continuity," said Dom Luiz, who speaks softly and walks with difficulty as a result of infantile paralysis.

A third candidate mentioned often is Dom Joao Henrique de Orleans e Braganza, 38, a wildlife photographer, ecologist, hotelier and former competitor on the international surfing circuit. Joaozinho, as he is called affectionately in the press, is considered to have the right mix of photogenic youth and sense of public duty, but as a nephew of Dom Pedro, his genealogical claim is more tenuous.

Like monarchists in Congress, Joaozinho argues that Brazilians will be voting on the installation of a new monarchy, not a restoration of the old one, and therefore anyone could be chosen king.

"This is the only referendum in the world where we have the {option} of choosing a king democratically," he said. "If monarchy wins in Brazil, it will have legitimacy because millions of people voted for it."

That the monarchy option is on the ballot at all is something of a quirk of history. When the military overthrew the empire and proclaimed a republic last century, it promised a referendum on whether the monarchy should be restored. That promise was never kept.

When the current constitution was written in 1988, there was strong sentiment for dropping the presidency in favor of a parliamentary system. The presidentialist view won out, but a plebiscite on the question was promised for five years later. Monarchists, remembering the unkept promise of the other referendum, were able to get the question of eliminating the republic on the ballot.

The monarchists' main argument is that a parliamentary system is inherently more democratic and cannot be as chaotic as the presidential republic has been. Supporters of a presidential system counter that Brazilians were denied a direct vote for president for decades and now that they have it, they should not give it up lightly.

Special correspondent Jeb Blount in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.