HARARE, Zimbabwe — Morgan Tsvangirai, a former labor leader and prime minister of Zimbabwe who once seemed on the cusp of defeating the country’s longtime president, Robert G. Mugabe, only to face bloody intimidation that thwarted his ambitions, died on Wednesday. He was 65.
The cause was colon cancer. Mr. Tsvangirai had been hospitalized for months in neighboring South Africa. Elias Mudzuri, the vice president of Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, confirmed the death.
Mr. Tsvangirai died less than three months after his longtime nemesis, Mr. Mugabe, was ousted by the military last November as part of a struggle within the governing party, ZANU-PF.
For almost 20 years, Mr. Tsvangirai (pronounced CHAN-gih-ray) headed the Movement for Democratic Change, a party founded in 1999 to capitalize on the growing unpopularity of the autocratic Mr. Mugabe, who led Zimbabwe from its independence in 1980.
In 2002 and again in 2008, Mr. Tsvangirai stood against Mr. Mugabe in elections marred by growing levels of violence against opposition supporters by government followers.
The abuses peaked in 2008, when Mr. Tsvangirai won more votes than Mr. Mugabe in the election’s first round but withdrew from a runoff, saying he did not want anyone to be murdered for voting. About 200 of his supporters had already been killed.
Mr. Tsvangirai proved no match for Mr. Mugabe’s wily political maneuvering, which drew on his record as a leader in the struggle against white minority rule, his often violent intolerance of opposition, and his ability to marshal support from regional and broader African political forces.
Mr. Mugabe frequently inveighed against Britain, the former colonial power, and depicted his adversaries, including Mr. Tsvangirai, as puppets of the country’s former imperial overlords.
When, in 2009, Mr. Tsvangirai became prime minister under a power-sharing agreement brokered by neighboring South Africa after the flawed vote of 2008, the pact and his new job diminished his ability to oppose the president.
Even as he accused Mr. Mugabe of flouting provisions of the so-called unity government, many critics said Mr. Tsvangirai had been outwitted and co-opted by the president. Indeed, once Mr. Mugabe’s sworn enemy, Mr. Tsvangirai seemed to settle into a more comfortable relationship with him, built on the privileges of office.
In 2012, after Mr. Tsvangirai celebrated his second marriage with a glitzy party attended by guests arriving in Bentleys, Mercedes and BMWs, some of his followers were aghast at the ostentatiousness of the display and questioned who had paid for it.
By the time elections were held the following year, Mr. Tsvangirai was greatly weakened. He accused Mr. Mugabe of rigging the election and challenged him in the courts. But Mr. Mugabe claimed victory with 61 percent of the vote, compared with 34 percent for Mr. Tsvangirai, and it seemed that Mr. Tsvangirai’s brush with high office was over. T hat was certainly Mr. Mugabe’s view.
“We have thrown the enemy away like garbage,” Mr. Mugabe said. “We say to them: You are never going to rise again.”
For all that, Mr. Tsvangirai appeared in recent months to be attempting a comeback, even as he made frequent trips abroad for colon cancer treatment.
In 2017, he was part of a so-called united front with other opposition groups, including the Zimbabwe People First movement led by Joice Mujuru, a former vice president and onetime guerrilla fighter ousted by Mr. Mugabe in 2014.
“In 2013, we don’t know what hit us,” Mr. Tsvangirai said last year, finally conceding that he had been beaten in the polls in 2013. “We were defeated. But this time, we will refuse to be defeated.”
The intention behind the alliance with Ms. Mujuru was to challenge Mr. Mugabe in elections in 2018, but that strategy was eclipsed by the military-backed intervention last November that brought Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former ally of Mr. Mugabe’s, to power.
After Mr. Mugabe was overthrown, there was fevered speculation that Mr. Mnangagwa would seek a more inclusive form of rule than the leader he had just ousted. Instead, Mr. Mnangagwa lauded Mr. Mugabe and announced a government of his own supporters, including the military.
Even as he fell ill with colon cancer, however, Mr. Tsvangirai failed to groom a successor, and he left behind a fractured party with no obvious leader to challenge Mr. Mnangagwa in the elections expected this year.
The eldest in a family of nine, Mr. Tsvangirai was born on March 10, 1952, in the Gutu district of Masvingo Province, in central Zimbabwe. The family was poor, and Mr. Tsvangirai abandoned formal schooling early to start work, first as a textile weaver and then as a plant foreman in a nickel mine.
Source: New York Times