In the extraordinary collision of men, ideas and arms that has marked politics in this nation over the last decade, Methodist Bishop Abel Muzorewa would appear to have emerged as one of the biggest losers.

Muzorewa was briefly prime minister of a hybrid government of white power and black ambitions known as Zimbabwe-Rhodesia after winning a stunning 1978 electoral victory. Then, after an equally stunning defeat, he became just another minor opposition politician in independent Zimbabwe under the rule of the new prime minister, former guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe.

But history has not yet finished with the bishop. Last October the government inadvertently granted him a second lease on political life by jailing him without charge following obscure allegations that he had conspired with white-ruled South Africa against Mugabe. When he was released three months ago, he vowed political revenge.

He has started to execute that revenge by aggressively campaigning for seats for his party in the parliamentary elections planned for early next year. He has told a series of respectably attended political rallies that the elections -- the first to be held since independence in April 1980 -- mark Zimbabwe's last opportunity to turn away from Mugabe's long-stated intention to turn the country into a one-party socialist state.

"If they sin," said Muzorewa in a recent interview, referring to Mugabe and his supporters, "that's the end of us -- finished. We'll just become another Mozambique. This is the last chance for democracy, for prosperity, for freedom in this country."

The bishop's United African National Council currently holds only three seats in the 100-member Parliament, all of them from the northern Shona-speaking regions that are the foundation of Mugabe's constituency. While no one here rates Muzorewa as a serious threat to topple the government electorally, some believe he could seriously embarrass the prime minister by running well in Mugabe's backyard.

If Muzorewa proved able to double his total to six, for example, that would still leave the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union with a comfortable majority of 55 seats. But it would serve as a rebuke to Mugabe's claim that his party commands such widespread popular support that it deserves to be enshrined as the sole legal political organization in a one-party state.

Muzorewa's appeal to voters is based not so much on his own record as on what he interprets as the ruling party's economic failures, including Zimbabwe's 20 percent annual inflation rate and increasing unemployment. While Mugabe likes to portray Zimbabwe as a victim of forces beyond its control -- such as the three-year drought and the lingering world economic recession -- Muzorewa places the blame squarely on the government's socialist-oriented policies, which he says are bankrupting the country and scaring away western investors.

"Scientific socialism is driving lots and lots of people to our cause," Muzorewa said. "There are many people fed up with that kind of thing."

Although Muzorewa is generally ignored by the state-run television and radio and the semiofficial daily newspapers, some of Mugabe's strategists are not taking his message lightly.

"It may be true that we have not really succeeded in explaining socialism adequately to the common man," said one government official. "We have to take Muzorewa very seriously. There's no question he could make some gains."

The official said Muzorewa was released in September to allow his party sufficient time to prepare for the election, so that the government would not be accused of unfairness. But the bishop has called his imprisonment symptomatic of an arbitrary system of justice that has become the rule in the new Zimbabwe and has said he plans to take full advantage of his release.

Muzorewa, 59, has been an unlikely political figure ever since he emerged in the early 1970s as a compromise representative inside what was then Rhodesia for black nationalist forces opposed to the white minority rule of prime minister Ian Smith. For many blacks, he forfeited that status in 1978 by agreeing to form a joint government with Smith and two other black leaders that left the forces of Mugabe and fellow guerrilla leader Joshua Nkomo out in the cold.

Muzorewa won an overwhelming majority of the black vote in a subsequent election, but his term as prime minister was cut short when he agreed with Smith, Mugabe and Nkomo to new elections in 1980 that would include the guerrilla leaders. Both painted the bishop as a white sellout during a campaign that many whites expected him to win. Instead, he finished a distant third and was seemingly consigned to political oblivion.

Muzorewa said he has no regrets about his role, contending that his provisional government helped cut short the bloody seven-year civil war that preceded independence.

"I feel that I really saved the situation," he said. As for his former white political allies, "politically they're of no use to me now."

Mugabe has claimed repeatedly that after the bishop's defeat in the 1980 elections, 5,000 armed Muzorewa followers fled to South Africa, where they are plotting military action against Zimbabwe with Muzorewa's connivance. Muzorewa has ridiculed the accusation and South African officials have said that at most a few hundred former "auxiliary" soldiers from Zimbabwe have settled south of the border but they are not conducting any operations against their country. Zimbabwean security officials have conceded that they can identify only one two-year-old incident, in which they charged that Muzorewa supporters infiltrated across the border but were quickly turned back.

The bishop said that his own detention, following the arrests of dozens of Nkomo supporters and the government's military crackdown in Nkomo's stronghold of Matabeleland, is proof that blacks are worse off in the new Zimbabwe than they were in the old white Rhodesia.

"Things are better in the sense that there are more job opportunities than before and more blacks are in positions of responsibility," he said. "But if you are talking about freedom as you know it in the western world, the answer is no. People can be locked up without trial. This is an independent country but without freedom."