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Zimbabwean Opposition Leader, Former Mine Worker, Challenges Country's Ruler


Morgan Tsvangirai is the head of Zimbabwe's opposition party and over the last decade has made unsuccessful attempts to unseat the country's longtime president Robert Mugabe. Now in 2008, the 55-year old Tsvangirai is caught in an election stalemate. His party won control of parliament from the ruling party on March 29th but the presidential election results have not been announced. VOA's Chris Simkins has a profile of the opposition leader who has struggled for change in Zimbabwe.

Morgan Tsvangirai, a former mine worker, rose to prominence as a union activist in Zimbabwe in the mid 1980's. In that role, he positioned himself as the country's leading opposition figure. Roxanne Lawson, is a policy director with TransAfrica Forum in Washington.

"He was secretary general of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions and through that process he really cemented himself as a civil society leader," Lawson said.

Tsvangirai led a series of crippling strikes against higher taxes in the late 1990's, forcing President Robert Mugabe's government to cancel the measures. In 1999, his trade confederation split from Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party. An expert says the party he formed promoted democracy and the rights of the unemployed. Emira Woods is with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

Woods says, "It created a platform for opposition, a platform for change that very much underpins now what is the party, the Movement for Democratic Change [MDC]."

Within months of splitting from the ruling party, the MDC defeated a government referendum on constitutional reform, which included allowing the seizure of white-owned farms without compensation. Throughout his political career, Tsvangirai has been an outspoken critic of President Mugabe.

"I think in the end, anyone rational in Zimbabwe will realize that Mugabe is acting as lone ranger. I think he has just sidelined his cabinet, parliament has been dissolved, so he is acting alone," Tsvangirai said.

Political analysts say Tsvangirai's criticism of Mr. Mugabe and the government made him and members of his party targets of harassment, violence, and even assassination attempts. Lawson says he was arrested and charged several times with treason but each time the cases were dismissed.

"Trade unionists are the first to be beaten and the first to be arrested and I think that really actually prepared him to stay the course in Zimbabwe,” Lawson said.

Tsvangirai lost to Mr. Mugabe in the 2002 presidential election. But there were widespread allegations Mr. Mugabe used violence to intimidate voters and rigged the contest by manipulating voting documents.

Tsvangirai has lost some support within his party for what some call his authoritarianism. He was accused of ordering some of his supporters to attack party dissidents. He appointed his own candidate, without a vote, to head of the party's women's wing.

In March 2007, Tsvangirai emerged from jail badly beaten. He told reporters that police had assaulted "defenseless" people. Several dozen opposition leaders were hospitalized. The analyst, Woods, says the political violence was widespread and drew international condemnation.

Woods says, "It was a broad base of people, those who are discontent with the economic crisis in Zimbabwe and those people who are pushing for greater political openness."

In March, Tsvangirai again challenged Mr. Mugabe for the presidency. His popularity and message gained new support after Zimbabweans faced hyperinflation and years of food and fuel shortages that plagued the country's deteriorating economy. Earlier this year Tsvangirai told VOA that Mr. Mugabe has divided people and ruined the country.

"Mugabe is now not only the president of the country. He is the institution that has run our country for the last 30 years. And look at the results: unprecedented levels of decay and misrule and repression. So he should be held accountable," he added.

The outcome of the 2008 election was delayed for weeks as Tsvangirai declared himself the winner and accused Mr. Mugabe of withholding the results to stay in power. Political analysts say Tsvangirai's future depends on the outcome of the election and, if he wins, whether he can bring rival factions together.

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