Former prime minister Abel Muzorewa alighted from his prop-jet campaign plane named Free Enterprise and encountered the humiliation every politician dreads -- not a single resident of this remote village showed up for his midweek rally.

Muzorewa and the British colonial government say the reason is simple -- intimidation of voters by members of the rival party of Robert Mugabe, a charge Mugabe strongly denies.Official election observers and reporters acknowledge that there is intimidation. However, some of them differ on explanations of who is responsible for it.

Intimidation has become the central issue in the campaign for this week's black-majority government election that is designed to end seven years of bloody guerrilla war and bring Rhodesia legal independence. The level of intimidation could lead the losing parties to reject the election result, thus breaking the tenuous cease-fire and destroying hopes for a Rhodesian settlement that would bring peace to southern Africa and ease the risk of eventual East-West confrontation.

Lord Soames, the British governor, has come down strongly against Mugabe's party, saying it is responsible for most of the intimidation and threatening to ban the party or disenfranchise voters in areas where the intimidation is severe.

A number of the official observers and reporters, however, have returned from British-sponsored tours of the countryside less than impressed with the British charges. The observers acknowledge intimidation by Mugabe supporters but say there are counterbalancing actions by auxiliary troops loyal to Muzorewa that go virtually unnoticed by the government.

Indian Ambassador Rajeshwar Dayal, chairman of the observer team from the 41-nation Commonwealth organization, openly says the British charges against Mugabe are exaggerated.

British, credibility is also at stake over the issue, since there are growing indications that Soames is seeking to prevent Mugabe, a self-proclaimed Marxist, from gaining power.

The local media give wide coverage to charges against Mugabe by Rhodesian military officials and increasingly by members of British election and cease-fire monitoring teams that are supposed to be neutral.

Mugabe's countercharges get short shift. A press conference he held this week was entirely ignored by the government-owned, British-supervised television, although it used several minutes for an interview with a Rhodesian military official who strongly condemned the actions of Mugabe's forces.

Mugabe charged in the press conference that Selous Scouts, elite commandos of the Rhodesian military, were responsible for bombings of churches last week in an attempt to blacken the name of his party and feed fears that it was antireligious.

There is considerable circumstantial evidence that Mugabe may be right, but the British government has taken no action and refused to comment on the matter. It also declined comment on the lack of police and court action over two attempts to assassinate Mugabe. Fearing another attempt by suicide squads, Mugabe today missed his second major rally in two weeks, aides said.

Early this week Nicholas Fenn, the governor's spokesman, provided observers and reporters with maps and details of 35 tribal trustland -- rural areas set aside for blacks -- where Soames says it is impossible for parties other than Mugabe's to campaign because of intimidation.

The Uzumba tribal trustland, containing Mashambanaka, where Muzorewa was shut out Tuesday, is one such area.

But at three tribal trustlands in the Mount Darwin District, 100 miles north of Salisbury, reporters were told quite a different story when they went there the same day.

Britain's election supervisor, John Mousley, said four political parties had held a total of 59 political meetings in the last six weeks with only nine of them by Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union party.

Instead villagers and representatives of political parties complained to reporters about widespread intimidation by auxiliary forces, under the command of the Rhodesian military but often still loyal to Muzorewa who formed them as a private army before last year's election.

However, in Rusape, 120 miles south of the capital, Lt. Hugo Morgan-Grenville, the British officer monitoring the activities of the Rhodesian security forces, praised the auxiliaries Wednesday. He had little use for Mugabe's people, referring to them as terrorist just as the white Rhodesians do.

When Muzorewa landed at Mashambanaka, he was greeted by 10 party workers from a town 30 miles away, five reporters and about 30 police and security force troops but no residents.

Obviously discouraged and perturbed that his plight was being witnessed by the foreign press, he said, "I'm glad you have seen intimidation at work."

In last April's election, Muzorewa took 75 percent of the 19,428 votes in the district. Only 30 percent -- half the nationwide average -- of those eligible voted, an indication of Mugabe's strength since he boycotted the election.

Mugabe says this is one of many areas where his guerrillas gained control during the seven-year war, meaning the bishop has no support there and thus explaining the lack of turnout.

Considering the curiosity and carnival nature of African politics, the fact that not a single person showed up to see the man who was prime minister just two months ago seemed to support the premise that Muzorewa's decline in popularity was not the only reason.

In Rusape, Morgan-Greenville, Lt. Col. John Anderson, commander of the local security forces, and British election supervisor David Bennett painted a generally grim picture of violence in the area.

Morgan-Greenville, a member of the Coldstream Guards, was outspoken in his praise of the auxiliaries, saying he was "impressed by their discipline, friendliness and cooperation. There are the recontruction troops of the war." f

Nevertheless, Morgan-greenville said, "I'm completely impartial, totally objective, We monitor events."

Pressed by reporters, he admitted privately to one criticisim of the Rhodesian military.

"The security forces are too trigger-happy," he said. "An awful lot of innocent civilians have been shot." Anderson was not around when the observation was made.

British election supervisor Bennett said parties other than Mugabe's had not been able to campaign in the several tribal trustlands in his area because of intimidation, but a tour of one territory by reporters and election observers showed otherwise.

Bennett added that "it has become a fashionable thing to complain about the auxiliaries and not the terrorists."

It was difficult to find trustlands' resident who complained about intimidation from Mugabe's forces but this could have been out of fear. Speaking in the presence of auxiliaries, many said they had not had trouble from either side.

Edgar Chambara, headmaster of a school at Gandanzara, said although he had not personnally experienced intimidation from the guerrillas, many of his students said their parents had been threatened. The intimidation, he added, takes various forms including the threat to kill them if they vote for the "wrong" party and the warning that the war will simply continue if their party does not win.

The key question is whether the intimidation has any effect. That in turn depends upon whether people believe that their vote is secret as the British have been publicizing in nationwide broadcasts and newspaper advertisements

There are widespread rumors that the guerrillas tell voters that "comrade" ghost" or the witch doctor will know how they voted, no matter what the British say. There are indications, however, that voters think their balott wil be secret, based on their experience in the April election.

To ensure the impartiality of the elections, hundreds of British police and officials of the United Nations and Organization of African Unity arrived in Rhodesia today to help supervise.

J. T. Brockbank, a British observer, said his experiences from 10 days of visits to the countryside was that people were going to ignore the intimidators and vote how they wished.

But then he added, "i've never heard so many lies in all my life."