The worldwide recession has put the usual domestic harmony of the Ivory Coast, black Africa's premier example of fast-paced economic development, under strain as the prices of coffee and cocoa, its main exports, continue their three-year decline. As a result, Ivorians are experiencing an unaccustomed austerity crunch.

The recession has brought with it growing unemployment and an increase in violent crime, problems usually associated with the weaker economies of many of the Ivory Coast's West African neighbors or such overheated, oil-fueled economies as in Nigeria, black Africa's petroleum-exporting giant.

Offshore oil discoveries, however, promise to reposition this small country for a new spurt of prosperity by the mid-1980s. Ivory Coast could become the second-leading exporter of petroleum in West Africa after Nigeria, according to industry and Western analysts.

Ivorians have begun to debate just how the petroleum largess should be spent, but an unsettling question for Ivorians, one intricately linked to this country's future stability, is who will follow President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, 76, the dominant political figure for 37 years.

In postcolonial Africa, there have been two noteworthy and smooth transfers of power from one leader to another--Kenya in 1978 and Senegal last year. In both cases, two elderly leaders, Jomo Kenyatta and Leopold Senghor, set up the mechanisms for the orderly transfer of authority and had their heirs in place to receive it. Kenyatta died in his sleep while in office and was replaced by then-vice president Daniel arap Moi while Senghor was the first African president to retire voluntarily, handing his mantle to his prime minister, Abdou Diouf.

During a spate of political liberalization in the Ivory Coast in 1980, Houphouet-Boigny pushed through the National Assembly in one day a constitutional amendment creating the position of vice president and making whoever holds the office his successor in case of an emergency.

But the still spry Houphouet-Boigny, a shrewd authoritarian leader, has left the position of vice president unfilled while prominent personalities of the tightly controlled Democratic Party, the only political party here, jockey to become his heir. The vice president must win his seat as the president's running mate, which ostensibly will leave the office vacant until Houphouet-Boigny runs for reelection at age 79 in 1985.

In the meantime, Houphouet-Boigny has loosened the reins somewhat over politics while keeping economic planning focused on agricultural development, a policy he has indicated he will continue even when the petrodollars begin to flow.

Just before pushing through his constitutional amendment, Houphouet-Boigny allowed the first contested election for 147 National Assembly seats among 649 candidates of his Democratic Party. Previously, the party offered only one candidate per constituency.

Since the Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960, Houphouet-Boigny's strategy has been to control access to all avenues of political power and economic affluence.

Houphouet-Boigny has governed with an occasionally stern paternalism, in conjunction with a group of wealthy Ivorian planters, the original founders of the Democratic Party, and with a technocratic elite that has concentrated power in its hands.

Now, however, in opening up the National Assembly elections, Houphouet-Boigny has put some distance between himself and the party regulars, criticizing those who, he said, had become mired in a "swamp of personal interests and egoistic ambitions." He castigated those who "went their own sweet way and tended to look after their personal interests before the general interest." Deputies who had done nothing for their constituents and the country's development "will thus be moved away," Houphouet-Boigny said.

Of the 80 incumbents who ran for reelection, only 27 won. The 120 newcomers included university professors, primary and high-school teachers and middle-level civil servants. Houphouet-Boigny rushed his amendment through the old assembly. The new assembly increasingly has demonstrated independence of Houphouet-Boigny.

While Ivory Coast has been hit hard by the drop in coffee and cocoa prices, the country remains comparatively affluent, envied by its neighbors. At least a quarter of its 8 million population consists of immigrants from Upper Volta, Ghana, Mali, Guinea and Liberia. Most have come in search of work, but a recent increase in crime has sparked a surge of xenophobia among Ivorians about the large foreign African community. Half of the 1.7 million population of this capital, for example, is non-Ivorian.

Last year, a roundup of aliens in Abidjan who could not present proper identification led to the tragic death by suffocation of 46 Ghanaian fishermen who were packed overnight into a six-person cell with only one air vent. Of 10,144 persons rounded up in a two-week period, 308 were detained as escaped criminals, wanted bandits or as illegal aliens who had been expelled previously.

"Most of the increase in armed robbery that we experienced was caused by several gangs" whose members were captured during the police dragnets, said Minister of Internal Security Gaston Ouassenan Kone in an interview. Kone said that in 1975, 236 persons had been convicted of armed robbery while in 1980 there were 352 convictions. General theft convictions rose in that period from 1,447 to 3,136 and drug-smuggling convictions, mainly marijuana, from 98 to 187.

Unemployment continues to rise, with 30,000 laid off in the construction industry last year as banks cut back on building loans. While Ivorian officials said that overall unemployment is rising, there are no general figures.

In addition, the government is in a financial squeeze between declining revenues and repayment of a $5.8 billion debt, money borrowed for development in the early 1970s, when coffee and cocoa prices were high.

Houphouet-Boigny repeatedly has criticized industrialized Western nations for what he describes as exploitation of commodity-exporting African countries by "shameful speculation" in the marketplace.

"There is constant trickery in the economic relations between developed and underdeveloped countries since the former set the prices of raw materials, allocate them for their own benefit alone and freely determine the prices of goods and services sold to the undeveloped countries," he said in a recent interview with the French newspaper Le Monde. "It is shameful that we cannot even discuss the price of raw materials that we export."

The government has cut this year's operating budget by 11 percent. Government-operated businesses (many of which lost huge sums of money) were reduced from 36 to seven. The country is spending 34 percent of its budget to service past debts.

In a Dec. 7 speech on the 21st anniversary of Ivory Coast's independence, Houphouet-Boigny announced that the celebration would not be held "with the usual pomp" as a money-saving measure. This and other measures will be necessary, he said, "until we have come out of the crisis."