Rhodesia's elections for a transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority closed today with international observers here as well as Western and African governments still undecided whether the balloting should be considered "free and fair."
There is much conflicting evidence, good reason to argue the case either way and probably no way of knowing whether the majority of black voters felt the elections were fair.
In the end, the outside world is likely to read into the elections what it wants.
Initial indications were that more than 60 percent of all eligible voters went to the polls.
Reporters and observers interviewing scores of Africans at the polling station across the country this past week found a wide variety of viewpoints about the polling.
The vast majority undoubtedly voted primarily because they want the war to end and were told their votes would, or could, help to do this. A large number, particularly among the older blacks, appeared totally confused by the issues and the wide choice of parties. Many others, however voted because they supported one or another of the black candidates and wanted him to become the first black prime minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.
Hundreds of thousands came to the polls with enormous enthusiasm, others in equally enormous fear for their lives or jobs. In the rural areas particularly, it seemed simply to boil down to who was in control, the guerrillas or the government through its soldiers, civil servants and white farmers.
Observers seeking to understand precisely why blacks were voting found the way full of pitfalls For example, a laborer on one white farm in the Bindura area north of Salisbury said his baas (boss) had told him he "must" vote if he wants the war to end.
Two others in the Mount Darwin area said the district commissioner had come and explained to them "the law says you must vote." Africans living in a guerrilla-dominated tribal trust land along the Mozambican border said "the soldiers came and told us we should vote."
This would seem to indicate numerous cases where strong pressure was exerted by the government on the rural blacks to vote. Yet the issue is far from clear. According to one white soldier who spoke fluent Shona, the main language among Rhodesian blacks, there is no differentiation in it between "must," "should" and "may."
"You just have to explain to them the advantages of voting," he said.
Observers, then, faced the task of interpreting an enormous gray area of degrees of pressure and intimidation of black voters from soldiers, civil servants, white farmers and party partisans.
The pressures on them from guerrillas seeking to disrupt the elections were more visible and the government did everything to emphasize them. Hundreds were taken from white farms and protected villages to prevent them from voting. Others were ambushed going to or coming from the polling stations. A good number were killed or injured by land mines placed on the roads leading to the booths.
Most of the guerrillas ordered those in their areas of control not to vote, but a scattering of them across the country told blacks just the opposite. In either case, many who voted were clearly sympathetic to the guerrilla leaders and hoped the new government would bring about a reconciliation.
The case against describing the elections as really "free and fair" seems strong. The country is in a state of war-martial law prevails in 90 percent of it, and the rural population lives constantly in the shadow of someone's gun.
The government silenced practically all opposition to the elections and prevented any criticism from being voiced in the state-controlled radio or television while the white-run newspapers played along.
It seems that many blacks working to organize a boycott or a campaign to spoil ballots were arrested, but no one has been able to pin this down. Opposition sources put the number in western Rhodesia alone at between 900 and 1,000, but police officials said only a "few hundred" were picked up.
On the other hand, armed party "auxiliaries" worked actively in many areas to clear out the guerrillas and get the vote out for their respective leaders with the government's help.
Perhaps the strongest argument against the elections is that two of Rhodesia's main nationalist figures, Patriotic Front leaders Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe, refused to participate, thereby excluding a significant proportion of the electorate.
The case for arguing that the elections were relatively "free and fair" also appears strong.
Perhaps the most even-handed assessment in favor of them from any delegation of observers has come from the New York-based Freedom House interim report presented to a press conference Friday.
The report begins by noting the "high degree" of activity of the security forces and that the extension of martial law over much of the country "has a coercive as well as a reassuring effect."
"Under these conditions, carrying out a fully free election is difficult," it said.
It goes on, however, to say that the government's effort to involve blacks in the election "seems creditable. All major groups that desired to contest the election were free to nominate slates and campaign and the mechanics of the election appear equal to the level of most democratic states."
It continues by noting that there has been "direct and indirect pressures" on blacks to vote from the government as well as not to vote from the guerrillas. "In neither case can the extent or degree of these pressures be precisely established."
Finally, the Freedom House report comes down on the side of approving the election, calling it "a significant advance toward majority rule in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia" and saying Rhodesia "has never had so inclusive and free an election."
The Freedom House board of trustees includes several congressmen and government officials. CAPTION: Map, no caption, By Richard Furno-The Washington Post