MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE -- The birth of multi-party democracy here is bringing into the open a black nationalist opposition that could pose a serious threat to the unity of the ruling party and upset the fragile racial equilibrium of Mozambican society, in the view of Mozambican and Western analysts here.

The hottest debate in the National Assembly in October over the new constitution centered on the question of whether whites, "mulattoes" -- people of mixed parentage -- and Indians should be considered "native" Mozambicans.

In addition, the first new party to emerge here, the Liberal and Democratic Party of Mozambique (Palmo), is running on a strong black nationalist platform critical of the role played here by the estimated 200,000 non-blacks.

"The native Mozambican has no personality because he has neither political nor economic independence," Palmo's political platform says. "With the economy in the hands of Asians, Europeans and mulattoes, it is impossible to talk of independence."

The televised debate saw some of the most senior officials of the ruling party, Frelimo, pitted against each other in heated argument. Such black nationalists as Transport and Communications Minister Armando Guebuza, Security Minister Mariano Matsinha and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Antonio Hama Thai fought for a restrictive definition of Mozambican nationality. They wanted a requirement of two generations of Mozambican-born forebears for a person to be able to claim to be a native Mozambican.

President Joaquim Chissano and his supporters prevailed, however, and the principle that a person need only have had a father or mother born in Mozambique to qualify as a native was adopted.

But the heat of the debate shook many whites and mulattoes, who now fear there will be a campaign by up-and-coming black nationalists to displace them from the government, party and economy.

A number of whites and mulattoes already are abandoning politics to take advantage of Frelimo's new free-enterprise policy and become private businessmen. But they are unlikely to escape the verbal wrath of Palmo, which is accusing them of having a stranglehold on the economy as well.

"The group with privileges in colonial times is the same as those who have the privileges today," complained Palmo leader Martins Luis Bilal in an interview.

Mozambique's non-blacks, Bilal said, "don't fight for the unity of all Mozambicans. They fight to maintain the privileges they had in colonial times."

"We're not asking the whites to leave," Bilal said. "We're trying to educate them to feel Mozambican and contribute to the country."

Palmo's political platform sharply criticizes whites, mulattoes and Indians, who have been largely responsible for keeping the government and the Frelimo Party functioning since independence because of their Portuguese-provided education and skills. The vast majority of Mozambican blacks were given little education or training in colonial times.

One platform plank is that Asians "and other non-native Mozambicans" be barred from engaging in all commercial activity outside urban areas, an idea said to be particularly popular with many army veterans interested in going into business and fearful of the competition from Indian and mulatto traders.

Palmo also criticizes the "invasion" of Mozambique by white foreign technical assistants -- cooperantes -- whom it accuses of corrupting the Mozambican economy with their dollars and Western mores and treating the country like "a new American Far West."

Palmo blames the whites and mulattoes for the imposition of a foreign ideology, Marxism-Leninism, on the country immediately after independence and it also is exploiting fears that former Portuguese residents will return and try to take back their farms, businesses and homes.

While Palmo seems to have seized upon the issue of black nationalism to promote his party's popularity, the guerrilla opposition Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) is known to share the views, as do many army officers and apparently even a significant minority in Frelimo's leadership.

Racial conflict periodically has erupted in Frelimo since its foundation 28 years ago. But its early leaders, Eduardo Mondlane and then Samora Machel, held it in check and even promoted a nonracial policy that was widely admired abroad.

Mondlane, who was killed by a letter bomb in 1969, married a white American and Machel, Mozambique's first independent president, surrounded himself with non-black ministers and aides. Four of Frelimo's nine Politburo members under Machel were whites or mulattoes as well.

"It was hard even to raise the issue with Machel," remarked one British analyst who was close to the late leader.

Pressed by its all-black officer corps, Frelimo adopted a policy immediately after independence in 1975 of excluding all non-blacks from the army. But this has now led to charges by Palmo that whites and mulattoes are unpatriotic and refusing to fight against Renamo.

"We are in a war situation but we don't find a single white, colored or Indian in the war," said Bilal. "They pay bribes to stay out of the war."

After Machel's death in a plane crash in 1986, Chissano set about to "blacken" his cabinet, government and the party. Today, there are only three non-blacks on Frelimo's 12-person Politburo and his cabinet is almost all black.

Whether black resentment of the white and mulatto elite is widespread enough to become the main basis for a successful political party remains unclear. This elite lives mostly in the cities, especially Maputo, and the depth of the appeal of black nationalism to the country's mostly peasant population remains unknown.

Palmo is also making a major issue over the fact that the northern and central provinces of the country are underrepresented in the government.

Some Mozambican and outside analysts say the problem of regionalism may prove more divisive in the coming elections than that of black nationalism. This is because Chissano has already taken action to "blacken" significantly his government and Frelimo's leadership but still has done relatively little to give northerners more representation.