Pakistan's military ruler, Gen Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who this week retracted his promise to restore civilian rule, is turning his country into a more authoritarian Islamic state.

Since Zia's retraction in his speech Tuesday night, more than 300 political leaders and party workers have been jailed or placed under house arrest. For the first time in a year, public lashings of hoarders and black marketeers have resumed in Zia's effort to control rampaging inflation.

A diplomat who keeps a close watch on the Pakistani political scene said that Zia has turned the government into "a naked dictatorship. There's no sunshine in it."

While in his speech he said that the elections had been "indefinitely postponed," Zia told a group of Pakistani editors two days later that his martial law administration could last "maybe two years, maybe four years, maybe 10 years."

Observers believe the bread-and-butter issue of escalating prices, not politics, is the one factor that might bring Pakistanis into the streets to rise up against the government.

The papers have been filled with stories of "vigilance squads" fanning through the markets to catch merchants hoarding scarce sugar and other foodstuffs to force prices up. The squads are backed by mobile courts that dispense instant justice.

The public lashings have all been for simple economic crimes of hoarding and black marketeering, not the rapes and other sex crimes that drew the beatings a year ago.

In the Raja Bazaar of nearby Rawalpindi, Army troops this morning visited every one of the 1,000 stalls and fined every merchant between $10 and $30 for a variety of minor offenses.

The merchants said they had broken no regulations, but the troops were merely showing that the government meant business.

Zia also pledged a drive against bureaucratic corruption and began filling potholes, paving roads and collecting garbage to win public support.

The harsher new climate introduced by Zia, who seized power in July 1977 promising to bring order and then hold elections, adds one more bit of instability to the so-called Crescent of Crisis -- an area of the world stretching from the Horn of Africa through Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan.

The public floggings are seen as a symbol of the new order. Kale Khan, described as "a notorious smuggler," was lashed 15 times across his bare back with a leather whip this week as thousands watched. Although unconscious after the beating, he was pronounced "out of danger" by doctors.

So far, Zia's new course produced grumblings in coffee shops and bazaars, but extra squads of police and soliders appear to have dampened any idea of protest demonstrations.

"Nobody is going to stand up and get himself lashed," said on diplomatic observer here, noting that South Asia politicians are used to being jailed, but not beaten.

One of the few political leaders not in jail shook his head in sorrow and said, "To think that a country like Pakistan, brought up with Western democratic ideals, should turn down to the level of Afghanistan or Yeman."

Zia indicated to Pakistan editors that he believes Western-style democracy -- inherited from the British when Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947 as an independent country for Moslems -- may not be right for his country.

"Where does Islam mention the modern type of election or democracy?" asked Zia, a devout Moslem who since he took power has worked to inject Islamic ideals into the government.

Zia has told close aides that he would like leading Moslem scolars to see if Islam is against such modern democratic institutions as political parties, free elections, and parliamentary or presidential governments, a source close to the president said.

"He thinks it is a relevant question, a very basic question," the source said. But at this time, he added, "it is only a loud thought" and doesn't mean that Zia will not end martial law until he has introduced an Islamic government.

Nonetheless, Diplomatic observers here from both Western and Asian nations agree that Zia is unlikely to turn Pakistan back to the type of government it has had since its founding -- with occasional slips in the past into periods of military rule.

But in all previous military governments -- as in the first 26 months of this one -- there was a promise of a return to civilian rule. Now that promise is muted.

"Zia is attempting a major reorientation of Pakistan politics," said one diplomat here. "Since 1947 Pakistan has been trying to develope a mutiparty political system that works. Now Zia is trying to create a one-party Islamic democratic system with no popular election as we know it."

The uncertainty in Pakistan adds to the instability of the region. Neighboring Iran created an Islamic republic, while the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan is fighting rebelling Moslem tribesmen who oppose what they consider "godless communism" that threatens their customs and religion.

But Zia has not turned against the West in his foreign policy. He is trying to mend relations with the United States that have been badly split by reports from Western intelligence sources last spring that Pakistan was embarking on a nuclear weapons program. The reports prompted Washington to end its long-standing aid program.

Pakistan steadfastly denies it has a nuclear weapons program. But according to reports reaching here, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance refused once more to buy the argument that the Pakistan nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

Observers here question whether Zia's turn away from an elected civilian government will drive a further wedge between the United States and Pakistan.

Pakistan needs economic help, with its cost of living increasing by a rate of at least 15 percent this year and its foreign exchange reserves dwindling so that now they will only buy one week's worth of imports.

Militarily, Pakistan sees itself threatened by the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan, which it says effectively moves the Soviet border to the Khyber Pass.

Pakistan would like the United States to prop it up militarily, as it did in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War, as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism and a counterweight to instability in Iran.

Vance, however, told a high-level Pakistan delegation in Washington last week that the United States will do nothing as long as there remains a question about the nuclear program here.

Zia has made it clear during the past four days that he is mainly concerned with the deteriorating economic situation here, especially the fast-rising prices that have caused grumblings of discontent.

Zia also needs the continued support of his fellow generals to remain in power, and there is wide speculation here that many of them do not like the image of the Army running the country.

He apparently got their support for canceling the elections and tightening the screws of martial law. The still unanswered question here is how long can he keep it -- especially if prices keep rising and the government becomes increasing unpopular.