"The election will be messy." With these words an official government Africa-watcher here summed up his private view of the situation in Rhodesia.
As Rhodesia's 200,000-plus whites went to the polls Feb. 14 in the first leg of "free and fair" elections, the British government was clearly worried.
Gone is the euphoria that bubbled up as the Lancaster House conference on the future of Rhodesia ended in December. Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, who steered the conference through rough seas, was then seen as a hero. Britain's diplomatic stock was rising.
Now, as hypothetical discussions give way to stark realities, the British Governor of Rhodesia, Lord Soames, is under constant verbal siege. And Britain's stock has dropped -- first with the 14-to-1 vote against Britain in the United Nations Security Council Feb. 3, and then with the Feb. 13 condemnation (mild though it was) by the Organization of African Unity.
The burning issue is "intimidation" -- the use of guns instead of arguments to sway Rhodesia's 7 million blacks when they vote in a separate election Feb. 27 through 29.
Marxist candidate Robert Mugabe, a former guerrilla leader, accuses Rhodesian security forces of brutality. As evidence, he cities several recent attempts on his life, the Feb. 14 arrest of five of his senior officials at Shabani, Rhodesia, and a sheaf of other complaints.
But British intelligence sources are convinced that Mr. Mugabe's men are largely responsible for the intimidation. Vast stretches in the eastern portion of the country are virtually off-limits for any but Mr. Mugabe's campaigners -- including his former Patriotic Front ally, Joshua Nkomo.
These sources claim that an estimated 4,000 guerrillas loyal to Mr. Mugabe still are in the Rhodesian bush, with orders not to report to designated holding camps but instead to retain control of the population in these largely rural and tribal lands.
Lord Soames has threatened to set aside ballots from areas where intimidation is rife, or to refuse to allow people there to vote. Such a course undoubtedly would provoke further international condemnation of Britain. Yet the British government, firmly backing Lord Soames' decisions, feels it may be the only way to prevent a rigged takeover by Mr. Mugabe -- which also would provoke a loud outcry, notably from anti-Communist governments.
Britain now plans to send an additional 500 policemen and soldiers to act as unarmed observers at the polling places.
Mr. Mugabe has threatened a return to warfare if the elections fail. Yet there are signs that the ballot will win out over the battlefield:
* Rhodesia still has a strong army. Mr. Mugabe could not restart the war, without sustaining large casualties.
* Several neighboring black states, once backers of the Patriotic Front, have grown quiet. President Samora Machel of Mozambique might not again give Mr. Mugabe's guerrillas the haven they once enjoyed.
And President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia appears to be supporting what British observers see as Mr. Nkomo's scrupulously above- board effort to fight the election by words rather than troops. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, however, remains a vocal opponent of the British-run process.
British experts see no clear winner in the black election, but, instead, a coalition. Mr. Mugabe, many think, will win the most seats, although not a majority. But the new government may be formed by a link-up between Mr. Nkomo and Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front Party.