MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE -- With the adoption of a constitution establishing a Western-style democracy, Mozambicans find themselves bewildered by the rush of changes in their lives -- the end of Marxism-Leninism, their first taste of capitalism, the political uncertainty over what parties and leaders will emerge. But there remains a fact of life for Mozambicans that has not changed -- a war as old as their nation.

President Joaquim Chissano conceded at a news conference Thursday, the day before the new constitution went into effect, that given the shaky political and economic circumstances Mozambique finds itself in today, such a democracy was "not without dangers."

"But the choice of a multi-party democracy results from the need to provide a new dynamic to the political process," he told his war-battered country, which ranks among the world's most miserable nations in terms of malnutrition, child mortality and general poverty.

Democracy is not coming to Mozambique the way it did in Eastern Europe, where angry citizens first rose up in massive demonstrations to overthrow dictatorial regimes. Instead, democracy is being imposed from the top down by the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front, or Frelimo by its Portuguese acronym, in response to the devastating civil war, economic collapse and outside pressure.

"If you want to suggest we are changing because Eastern European countries are changing, I would say you are mistaken," Chissano told a reporter. "We are not changing because of changes in the East but because of changes inside our country."

A majority of the Frelimo's Central Committee came out against a multi-party system, but the 12-person Politburo overruled the lower body and unanimously decided to adopt it, thereby hoping to entice the guerrilla opposition Mozambican National Resistance, or Renamo by its Portuguese acronym, off the battlefield and into peaceful politics.

"Chissano," said a Western diplomat, "is a master chess player."

The diplomat explained that Chissano's gambit is to meet, step by step, all the peace conditions set by Renamo's leader, Afonso Dhlakama. Chissano has "called his bluff," the diplomat said. "Dhlakama wanted a multi-party democracy. Now he's got it."

Dhlakama also has demanded the withdrawal of the estimated 7,000 Zimbabwean troops fighting alongside Frelimo forces. In Rome yesterday, Frelimo and Renamo negotiators signed an agreement to confine all Zimbabwean troops to two transportation corridors -- the 196-mile road, railway and oil pipeline through central Mozambique to the port of Beira, and the 335-mile railroad that skirts the Limpopo River from Zimbabwe to the southern port of Maputo.

Renamo promised not to attack these routes, so long as the Zimbabweans refrain from offensive military actions and begin within 15 days to restrict their troops to within two miles of the corridors, special correspondent Karl Maier reported from Maputo. This limited cease-fire agreement was the first accord ever between Frelimo and Renamo.

But Mozambican officials said they were disappointed that the negotiations had not made further progress toward a general cease-fire. The conflict has cost, directly or indirectly, 900,000 civilian lives, according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, and left at least 2 million people homeless.

"A small step, a limited step and below expectations" was how the head of the government delegation in Rome, Transport Minister Armando Guebuza, described the agreement. "We hope that this is not an accord about how to continue the war," he said in a speech at the end of the talks.

After 15 years of single-party Frelimo rule, the new constitution, which was another of Renamo's demands, enshrines the concept of "political pluralism" as "a fundamental instrument for the democratic participation by citizens in the life of the nation."

Frelimo Politburo members such as Foreign Minister Pascoal Mocumbi insisted that the only party that independent Mozambique has ever known is ready to hand over power to "whoever is elected" in next year's first multi-party election.

"We'll let the democratic game play its role. If we lose, we'll fight the next election," he said.

Just how popular multi-party democracy will be here is not easy to gauge. There has been no groundswell of popular demand -- street demonstrations, posters or meetings -- for a multi-party democracy here. A long debate on the new constitution, in which 3 million mostly illiterate peasants reportedly took part, found that most did not like the idea of their chiefs' authority being challenged and their villages divided by party factionalism.

"People are not interested in politics, they're interested in peace," remarked an Anglican priest.

A law regulating the formation of parties is scheduled to be voted on by the National Assembly in the next couple of months. Then, Chissano said, he will consult with those that emerge about an election law so that Mozambicans can go to the polls by the end of 1991.

But nobody seems quite sure here just how to "jump-start a democracy," as another Western diplomat put it. During a short transition period from Portuguese colonial rule to independence in 1974-75, more than 100 parties emerged, but most lasted only a few weeks. Frelimo swept aside the remaining few when its leaders and guerrillas marched into the capital as the undisputed rulers of independent Mozambique.

Fifteen years later, neither Frelimo nor Renamo seems very popular. One Western embassy took an informal street poll in Maputo among 100 Mozambicans and found that none wanted to vote for Renamo and only 20 for Frelimo.

Frelimo is blamed for leading the country into economic and ideological bankruptcy under its now-discarded Marxist-Leninist banner. It is criticized as well for massive mismanagement, high living and corruption.

But Renamo seems to have an even worse reputation. Atrocities inflicted on innocent civilians by either bandits or Renamo's ragtag guerrillas have won it the reputation of being "the Khmer Rouge of Mozambique." Fears run high among many Maputo residents that, under a multi-party system, Renamo will bring to the capital the banditry and atrocities it has allegedly practiced in the countryside for the past decade.

Thus, the view of many Mozambican and Western analysts is that Mozambique is ripe for the emergence of a third party that could displace both Frelimo and Renamo as the leading force. But it is far from clear where such a party might arise to challenge Frelimo seriously in the first multi-party elections.

A few embryonic opposition parties and possible leaders are beginning to appear, but none seems to arouse much enthusiasm here in the capital. Even in many parts of rural Mozambique, according to reporters who have traveled repeatedly to the countryside, the name of President Chissano often rings no bell.

Those mentioned as potential opposition leaders include Domingos Arouca, Mozambique's first black lawyer, who was jailed for eight years under the Portuguese and now lives in Lisbon; Gimo Phiri, who heads a Renamo splinter group, the Mozambican National Union (Unamo); and Maximo Dias, a lawyer of Indian descent who leads the Mozambican National Movement (Monamo).

Even less known are the leaders of the first new party to emerge inside Mozambique, the Liberal Democratic Party of Mozambique (Palmo). They have already published a program choosing the highly emotive issue of black nationalism to challenge Frelimo on its longstanding non-racial policy, which has led to a highly influential role for the small group of whites, Indians and those of mixed race here.

One widely held view circulating even in Frelimo circles is that the most serious threat to its power lies within itself and that Frelimo, long a coalition of factions, will shortly spawn at least two parties.

Some Frelimo officials predict that its hard-line Marxist-Leninist wing will break off to form a socialist party while those favoring free enterprise will set up a Christian or social democratic party backed by Mozambique's powerful Catholic Church.

Chissano, who has spoken of differing "tendencies" within Frelimo, is clearly trying to avoid an open split between its old-line Marxists and budding capitalists by projecting his party as at once socialist in objective and capitalist in practice.

He told reporters that Frelimo would remain a socialist party because it has "always opted for socialism as a need of the Mozambican people and will continue thus." But in the same reply, he stoutly defended the free enterprise practices Frelimo has introduced into the economy.

"Free market forces," he insisted, "are not necessarily contradictory with the final objective of constructing socialism."