Buoyed by his union successes, Tsvangirai helped found the labour-backed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999 and quickly became Zimbabwe’s most visible opposition figure, harnessing the frustrations of urban workers bearing the brunt of a struggling economy.
In February 2000, the MDC engineered Mugabe’s first poll defeat – the rejection in a national referendum of a draft constitution that would have entrenched his presidential powers.
That June, the MDC endured killings and police intimidation to stun ZANU-PF by winning 57 of the 120 seats in parliament after Tsvangirai captivated the public with his combative and compelling pro-poor rhetoric.
As he would do on two other occasions, Tsvangirai claimed to have been cheated by a mixture of cunning and violence meted out by Mugabe, who ruled for 37 years until forced to step down after a de facto coup in November 2017.
In March 2008, he came closest to unseating Mugabe.
Still bearing the scars of his treatment by police – an outrage that bolstered his popularity – Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in a first round vote but was forced to pull out of a run-off due to a campaign of violence against his supporters.
His undoubted personal courage and political obduracy earned him plaudits in the West, with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard likening him in 2012 to pro-democracy figureheads such as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
Those who knew him better described a headstrong man ill-equipped to take on a figure as entrenched and ruthless as Mugabe.
“Tsvangirai is a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment,” former U.S. ambassador Christopher Dell said in a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks in 2009.
“He is an indispensable element for opposition success… but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power.”
Dell’s misgivings proved correct when, in 2013, voters failed to credit Tsvangirai with Zimbabwe’s economic turn-around under the coalition government and handed him his biggest electoral defeat.
Tsvangirai, whose colourful love life had been laid bare in Zimbabwe’s tabloids and the courts over the previous two years, dismissed the result as “monumental fraud”.
After the defeat, the MDC split for the second time in less than a decade as loyalists led by former Finance Minister Tendai Biti laid the blame squarely at his door. As age and illness crept up, Tsvangirai never had a chance to prove him wrong. – The Source