As the March general election in Zimbabwe nears, the stage has been set for a bitter political confrontation. Opposition leader Joshua Nkomo fired the opening shot by calling for a ''united front'' to oppose Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's proposed one-party socialist state.
Mr. Nkomo, addressing his minority opposition Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) in a pre-election congress this month, branded Mr. Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) as ''fascists - whose hands are stained with the blood of our people.'' Nkomo, limbering up for what many think is his final election campaign, warned that attempts to impose a one-party state in a ''climate of division and suspicion'' were bound to fail.
The well-attended congress in which some 6,000 delegates participated has come as a much-needed boost for ZAPU at a time when the government-controlled news media has dismissed the opposition party as a weak, leaderless, and declining organization. But ZAPU rebuffed its critics with a convincing victory early this month in the local government elections in Bulawayo, in the western province of Matableland. This and the much larger than expected turnout at the party congress - ZAPU's first congress since 1975 - has encouraged some political analysts to revise their opinions.
However, ZAPU still has a way to go: At the 1980 independence elections, it won only 20 seats in the 100-member Parliament (20 of which are reserved for whites). Almost all of that support came either from the Matabeleland or from the neighboring midlands area, peopled by the minority Ndebele tribe which accounts for 20 percent of the total population.
For Joshua Nkomo, the next six months represent his final chance to break out of a lifetime of political opposition. Even if ZAPU manages to retain its electoral stranglehold over the Matabele people next March, the switch to British-style constituency elections from the proportional representation poll that applied in 1980 might rob the party of some of its seats, since constituency voting frequently doesn't reflect proportionate support.
There are doubts too over the strength of of ZAPU's party organization. After all, it was banned from holding meetings in some parts of the country for four months this year when the government accused the opposition of being responsible for the murder of ZANU-PF officials. Furthermore, ZAPU does not get much in the way of media coverage in a country where radio, TV, and the main newspapers are effectively state controlled.
In this situation, it is hardly surprising that Nkomo should have appealed for a united front of opposition groups to oust the Mugabe government and forestall the proposed one-party state.
The ZAPU strategy is to secure an electoral alliance with the remnants of the political parties led by two former prime ministers - Bishop Abel Muzorewa, leader of the United African National Council, which has only three parliamentary seats, and Ian Smith, who leads the whites-only conservative alliance.
Four years ago, Mr. Smith commanded 20 parliamentary seats but his supporters have drifted away and a splinter group of former Rhodesian Fronters who suddenly and conveniently decided that they had been pro-Mugabe socialists all along now controls more than half of the 20 seats in Parliament reserved for whites.
This suggests that even if an Nkomo-Muzorewa-Smith alliance were to be formed , it would not seriously threaten Mugabe's comfortable majority. At present the ruling party holds 58 of the 100 seats in Parliament, and with the white independents who vote with his government the prime minister can count on a solid two-thirds support in Parliament. The ''united front'' does not therefore seem likely to be a serious problem for Mr. Mugabe.
Not that the opposition will be short of political ammunition. The dissident problem in Matabeleland, where disaffected supporters of ZAPU have been harassing farmers and the security forces, the stagnant econmomy, in which living standards have fallen at least 20 percent since 1981, falling employment, and declining real wages - all of this should allow the opposition to score heavily in the political debate.
But scoring political points counts for relatively little in independent Africa where regional and tribal allegiances are extremely powerful and where the incumbent party has nearly unlimited advantages derived from being at the helm. If the elector is dissatisfied with Mugabe's government, this is more likely to show itself in a low turnout on election day rather than active voting against the government. Furthermore, Nkomo would be playing a dangerous game indeed if he were to link arms with the Smith and Muzorewa parties, since this would allow ZANU-PF to brand ZAPU as a party of ''sellouts'' trying to reimpose colonialism and reopening all the wounds associated with the liberation war in the 1970s.
All of which tends to suggest that the run up to the March elections will generate much more heat than light, and that on polling day, Mugabe will be comfortably returned to office, probably with an enlarged majority.
Then, the struggle between the moderates within the ruling party who wish to retain a mixed economy and strong links with the West and the idealogues who complain that the ''road to socialism'' is not being pursued enthusiastically enough will resume in earnest.
The economic recession and the simple hard economic facts of life - dependence on trade links with the West and with South Africa, investment by the West, loans from Western banks, and aid from the United States and the European Community, in particular - will strengthen the hand of the pragmatists. But regardless of economic considerations, Zimbabwe is likely to progress slowly and haltingly along the road to Mugabe's promised one-party socialist society.