After a contentious parliamentary debate, the government today abandoned its move to strip opposition leader Joshua Nkomo of his legislative seat.

The 66-year-old patriarch of the Zimbabwean independence movement was jeered, laughed at and shouted down more than a dozen times as he attempted to explain his five-month, self-imposed exile in London and to call for unity in this politically torn nation.

When Nkomo charged that government soldiers had plotted to kill him in March and caused him to flee the country, a legislator from Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's majority Zimbabwe African National Union party shouted, "Why did you not run to Harare instead of to London?"

When another opponent interrupted Nkomo, shouting that he had run away from Zimbabwe's problems, he retorted, "I ran away from my grave."

Throughout the 25-minute debate, Mugabe sat silent and expressionless, his arms folded, facing away from his long-time rival. But in earlier remarks opening today's session, Mugabe branded Nkomo "the father of the dissidents," who he said wanted to topple his government by force.

"The open hand of reconciliation is . . . permanent so far as there is reciprocity from the other side. But that open hand can also go into a clench and become a fist," Mugabe warned.

Nkomo denied he supported armed dissidents in his native Matabeleland in southwestern Zimbabwe. But he added that he condemned "official dissidency" as well, a reference to the crackdown on rebels in that region by government troops earlier this year that left hundreds of civilians dead.

Both sides claimed victory after today's session. Nkomo called the government withdrawal of its expulsion motion "inevitable," saying Mugabe's party lacked the 51-vote majority needed to strip him of his seat. There appeared to be fewer than 51 members of the party at the session, but the party holds 57 seats in the 100-member house.

Government spokesman John Tsimba said Mugabe's party decided to drop the motion to show that the "government can be magnanimous." But he added that since there was no provision stopping Nkomo from running again for the seat, expulsion would have been pointless.

"If Nkomo had run and won again, the common man might have thought he had won a great victory," said Tsimba.

The government introduced the expulsion motion earlier this month, saying Nkomo has violated the constitutional provision that members of Parliament not be absent for more than 21 consecutive sessions. But a vote was put off twice when Mugabe's party appeared to lack the necessary majority.

Minister of Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Eddison Zvobgo withdrew the motion today after a blistering attack on Nkomo.

"There was nothing that did this country a greater disservice than Mr. Nkomo's flight from here," Zvobgo said. "He said that we intended to kill him . . . . Some of our enemies abroad were beginning to believe him. These lies must end."

Zvobgo cited Nkomo's call for a national conference of unity as "old hat--bring everybody together under some tree and all our problems will vanish."

He also attacked what he called the "Nkomo-is-above-the-law argument" that Nkomo should be allowed to resume his seat because of his past role in freeing Zimbabwe from white rule.

"Past performance and past contribution to the struggle should not be used as license for future abuse of the rule," Zvobgo said.

Zvobgo said the ruling party had never intended to be "vicious or vindicative" in seeking Nkomo's ouster. But today's session at times appeared to be both. Home Affairs Minister Herbert Ushewokunze, who is in charge of state police, interrupted Nkomo at one point shouting, "Where are the dresses? I'm glad you came back like a man this time." He was referring to a never-substantiated government claim that Nkomo had escaped to Botswana disguised in a dress.

Earlier, John Probert, a member of the white Republican Front party, compared the rift between Nkomo and Mugabe to "a family squabble."