Small crowds gathered in Black Star Square this evening to watch the slowly returning results of Ghana's first national election in a decade as this West African nation's military rulers continued to impose a new moral order.

Early returns showed a surprisingly tight race between Hilla Limann, a newcomer, and Victor Owusu, who has been involved in national politics since independence 22 years ago.

With 53 of the 140 parliamentary seats decided, Limann's People's National Party had won 18 and Owusu's Popular Front Party had taken 15. The remaining seats were divided among three other parties.

The early returns were interpreted here as reflecting the voters' desire for fresh leadership. It was unclear what impact Ghana's two-week-old coup had on voting patterns. Final results are expected by Wednesday afternoon.

Limann's party was formed by center-left followers of Ghana's first president, the late Kwame Nkrumah, Limann is a career diplomat who has been posted in Togo and Switzerland. Owusu is considered a moderate.

Monday's election came on the heels of a bloody coup carried out by junior officers and enlisted men against the military government of Gen. Frederick Akuffo. The coup leaders accused Akuffo's government of economic corruption, stealing from the state coffers and accelerating the downward slide of Ghana's weak economy.

One diplomatic source said today that Akuffo is not under arrest with many of his fellow senior officers, as previously reported, but has been given refuge in a Catholic church in Accra where he is under the protection of Hilary Senoo, secretary general of the Roman Catholic national secretariat here.

Roman Catholics comprise 12 percent of Ghana's 11 million population but are a powerful political force. Protestants make up 31 percent of the population, 12 percent are Moslems and the rest follow traditional African religions.

"The Revolutionary Council knows where Akuffo is and if they want him, they'll go and get him," the source added.

The coup's leader, Air Force Lt. Jerry Rawlings, 32, has been cheered and applauded at public and trade union rallies as a hero since the June 4 takeover. Rawlings has promised to hand over power to the newly elected civilian government in three months following a "housekeeping" by "people's courts of military officers, civilian government administrators and businessmen - all accused of corruption.

Capt. Boakye Djan, reputedly the intellectual strategist on the ruling Revolutionary Council, said the council could hand over power to the civilian government earlier if it promised to continue fighting corruption.

The "housecleaning" began on Saturday with the executions of former military head of state Ignatius Acheampong and an aide, Maj. Gen. E.K. Utuka, for allegedly embezzling state funds.

Council spokesman Sam Adomako, interviewed at the council's headquarters, said the peoples courts were still trying some of the approximately 80 senior officers on charges of corruption.

"No one will be allowed to attend the trials," Adomako said. "This is an Army matter and we will keep it to ourselves."

Adomako declined to say if there would be more executions but added that once the officers had been tried, "We will then begin to look at the civilians." A small number of civilian businessmen have also been imprisoned.

Evidence of a slow reaction to the coup and the Army's crackdown on people who sell products above government-set prices began to surface over the weekend.

On Monday, Ghana's two leading government newspapers ran stories and pictures of three men and a woman being caned by soldiers. They had been found guilty of hoarding, selling goods above government prices, pickpocketing and trafficking in marijuana.

An inn manager was given 12 strokes of a cane for selling beer for $2.50 a bottle instead of the approved price, $1.

On Sunday, private bus drivers, called "trio-tros", voluntarily dropped their fares by half to prices set last October but ignored. The bus drivers said they lowered their prices to show "solidarity" with the revolution.

Five hundred students at Ptakoradi Polytechnic School outside Accra demonstrated for the Acheampong and Utaka executions by carrying signs reading: "Let the blood flow" and "The wages of sin is death."

Today cab drivers dropped their hourly rental prices from the previous $10 an hour to $7.

Asked why he conformed, one driver replied: "Everyone is doing it. We Don't want to be caned."