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Profile: Morgan Tsvangirai

6 March 09 18:55 GMT

By Joseph Winter
BBC News Online

Morgan Tsvangirai has risen from working in a mine to becoming the symbol of resistance to repression in Zimbabwe to prime minister.

After election in March 2008, it seemed he was on the verge of finally unseating President Robert Mugabe.

He gained the most votes but, according to official results, not enough to win outright. Before the second round was held in June, his supporters were targeted in a campaign of violence and he pulled out.

After months of tortuous negotiations, he was finally sworn in as prime minister of a power-sharing government, in February 2009, with Mr Mugabe remaining president.

A charismatic speaker, he is a brave man - constantly running the risk of arrest or assassination since emerging several years ago as President Mugabe's first credible challenger since the 1980s.

As the leader of Zimbabwe's opposition, he has been brutally assaulted, charged with treason and routinely labelled a "traitor".

In 2007, the world was shocked to see pictures of his injuries after police beat him after arresting him for taking part in a prayer meeting which they said was illegal.

President Mugabe said the veteran trade unionist "deserved" his treatment for disobeying police orders.

But even some of his supporters - mostly young, urban residents - say he has been outmanoeuvred by Mr Mugabe and his allies.

'Dictator'

The eldest of nine children, Mr Tsvangirai left school while a teenager to help support his parents.

He has also had a large family. He has six children with his wife, Susan, who was killed in a car crash in March 2009.

Mr Mugabe snootily calls Mr Tsvangirai an "ignoramus" because of his humble background and lack of education.

The MDC leader once told me that his strategy to unseat the president was to wait while Mr Mugabe mismanaged the economy to such an extent that he was forced out of office.

This long-term, passive view has steered the country away from civil war and he is now prime minister.

But Mr Mugabe remains in power.

While in opposition, Mr Tsvangirai was a regular visitor to Harare High Court.

In September 2000, he told a rally of his Movement for Democratic Change: "If Mugabe does not go peacefully, he will be removed by force."

The 56-year-old eldest son of a bricklayer says this was not a threat of armed rebellion but a warning of popular discontent.

Those treason charges were deemed unconstitutional but he does have a tendency to open his mouth before considering the consequences.

Just before the 2002 presidential elections, a mysterious video tape emerged, which allegedly showed Mr Tsvangirai discussing how to assassinate Mr Mugabe with a Canadian consultancy, Dickens and Madson.

The head of the consultancy, Ari Ben-Menashe, used to work as a lobbyist for the Zimbabwe Government and he calls Mr Tsvangirai "stupid" for even speaking to him, let alone allegedly discussing killing the president.

Mr Tsvangirai was acquitted of treason, but for 20 months he had the possibility of a death penalty hanging over his head.

He was charged with treason for a third time in 2003, after calling for mass protests to oust Mr Mugabe.

These fizzled out under the force of police truncheons.

Despite his image as a freedom-fighter, some of Mr Tsvangirai's closest allies have accused him of behaving like a dictator on occasion.

He overruled a decision by the MDC leadership to take part in elections for the Senate in 2005 and ordered a boycott.

This led to a split, which seemed to have badly hit his chances of toppling Mr Mugabe.

Revenge

The catalyst for Mr Tsvangirai's transformation was his career in the trade unions.

He used to be an official in Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

After being plant foreman of the Bindura Nickel Mine for 10 years, he climbed the unionist ladder until in 1988, he was elected secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

As Zimbabwe's economy declined and workers' living standards plummeted, the ZCTU took an increasingly political role.

When Mr Mugabe tried to raise income tax to pay pensions for veterans of the 1970s war of independence, a ZCTU-organised nationwide strike forced him to back down.

In apparent revenge for his part in defeating Mr Mugabe and the war veterans, a group of men burst into Mr Tsvangirai's office, hit him on the head with a metal bar and attempted to throw him out of his 10th floor window.

This was a foretaste of the war veterans' campaign of violence ahead of elections in 2000 and 2002, which led to the deaths of more than 100 MDC supporters.

Contradictions

Buoyed by its initial victory, the ZCTU held further strikes against the government's economic mismanagement.

But Mr Mugabe stood firm and after intense debate, the ZCTU helped establish the MDC in September 1999.

Its nationwide structures were crucial in helping the young party campaign for the June 2000 parliamentary elections, in which it won 57 seats - the best opposition showing in the country's history.

Despite its foundations in the black working class, Mr Mugabe says the MDC is a puppet of white farmers and the UK government.

And, before they lost their land, many white farmers did support, campaign for and help finance the MDC.

The state-controlled media used to constantly remind voters that Mr Tsvangirai did not participate in the guerrilla war against white minority rule.

As a former miner and unionist, his heart is social democratic - roughly in the middle of Zimbabwe's deep economic and political divide.

He used to blame many of Zimbabwe's economic woes on the IMF's structural adjustment programme.

"The IMF are devils," he once told me.

But many in his party are industrialists who believe in the power of the free market, while Mr Mugabe and his allies see the world through socialist eyes.

As prime minister of a government with such diametrically opposed economic views, faced with one of the world's worst economies, he has a tough job ahead of him.

But he has spent years striving for power and now he has it, or at least a share.

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