ON December 5, 1991, the Senate chamber of the Brazilian Congress was lit for a ceremony. Sumptuous leather armchairs for 70 senators stood in pairs behind desks of dark tropical wood. Everything was done in royal blue. Overhead, in the blue ceiling, a shallow dome bathed the room in golden light - two colors of Brazil's flag (the larger Chamber of Deputies is done in green, the third color). A flag set near a large floral display was unfamiliar. It was the banner of the Brazilian Empire.
The Senate was about to mark the centennial of the death of the last emperor, Dom Pedro II. He was an incompetent deposed in 1888. But the light chatter of his descendants and the senators in the lobby signaled a happy occasion. The Orleans e Braganca family is fairly unpolitical. But there is a pretender, Pedro's great-grandnephew Prince Luiz. In today's Brazil, who can be sure? Next year, a plebiscite gives the people a choice between retaining the presidential system, which President Fernando Collor d i Mello has so discredited, moving to a parliamentary regime, or - restoring the monarchy.
That is precisely what a number of ex-monarchs and their heirs have in mind for their countries today. Freedom from tyranny has meant hunger, strife and wild jockeying for power. A constitutional monarchy with a king or queen above politics looks better now than in a long time.
Take Crown Prince Alexander Karageorgevitch of Yugoslavia. There is not likely ever again to be a Yugoslav state. But he is a Serb from an old dynasty and would like to be King Alexander II of Serbia. Born in London in 1945 after his parents fled the Nazis, the prince could not return to Belgrade until last October. He found himself the centerpiece of a huge demonstration against Slobodan Milosevic, the chauvinist ex-communist now president of Serbia. Alexander went back this summer with a message of dem ocracy and peace in the Balkans. He has not found international acceptance; but if the Serbs called him, that would follow.
King Simeon II of Bulgaria was on the throne as a child when the communists expelled him and his mother in 1946. He has not been back. But he follows Bulgarian politics closely and supported the democratic opposition that won last fall's election. The new president, Zhelyu Zhelev, met him this spring in Madrid, where he lives, for what they called a friendly, positive and pragmatic talk. Simeon is not packing his bags.
King Michael of Romania, now 71, may have a suitcase ready. After an abortive visit in 1990, he and Queen Anne were allowed to return this year to celebrate Easter at a monastery far from Bucharest. Crowds waved monarchist banners. If Michael does not make it, his dynamic heir to the throne, Princess Margarita, is quite willing.
SOME Balkan aspirants have dimmer prospects. King Constantine of the Hellenes would return, but Greece doesn't want him. King Leka of Albania, son of the late King Zog, lives in South Africa as a "commodities trader," some say arms dealer. His country, still dirt-poor, is making the transition to democracy without him.
Given the trouble that Russia is in, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov might possibly have made it. Returning to St. Petersburg for the first time last fall when the city resumed its original name, Vladimir was lionized, waving to the people from a balcony of the Winter Palace. He did come back last April, for a royal funeral and burial with his ancestors in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Another Romanov, Prince Nicholas, descendant of Czar Nicholas I, now in Switzerland, may step into his shoes.
There are many others. Prince Idriss of Libya and his family were turned out by Muammar Qaddafi in 1969. Last year he said he was taking control of a small CIA-trained Libyan force that had fought Qaddafi in Chad. He has not been heard from since. It looked for a while as if King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan might return from exile as a rallying point above the fighting mujahideen. The need is great; but no one in his right mind would take the job.
One ruler who returned with much acceptance is Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. But he has security only through the presence of the United Nations. When the UN goes, as it must, he will face Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed his family the last time around.