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Heroic return for Zimbabwe's opposition leader

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Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, casting his vote in an election he looks set to win. Credit: Desmond Kwande, Getty Images

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, casting his vote in an election he looks set to win. Credit: Desmond Kwande, Getty Images

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, casting his vote in an election he looks set to win. Credit: Desmond Kwande, Getty Images

Seated in a large flowery armchair in the garden of his home in Harare, Morgan Tsvangirai looked more like a sleepy uncle than a political lazarus. The deep angry scar on his forehead and a slight slur in his voice were the only signs that he had received a vicious beating at the hands of the police.

Prior to that assault a year ago, the man known affectionately as "two cheeks" for his expansive face, seemed to be fading from the political scene. Unable to stir mass action, he was being talked about as a spent force and attention had been turning to a younger rival, Arthur Mutambara.

Now he was receiving The Independent in his garden and talking calmly of the need for constitutional change and fresh elections. His verdict on his own ordeal was inspiring: "There is no freedom without sacrifice." Once again a figure with status on the world stage, Mr Mugabe's thugs had succeeded in reviving Comrade Bob's only serious challenger.

In fact, Mr Tsvangirai, 55, has been the only man who has so far been capable of reminding Mr Mugabe of his political mortality. The first reminder was issued in 2000 when the Zimbabwean President held a hasty referendum to allow himself to run for two further terms in office.

It fell to a charismatic figure who had risen from the mineworkers' union to head Zimbabwe's equivalent of the TUC, to stop him. Along with lawyers, church leaders and human rights' groups, Mr Tsvangirai launched the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

There were increasing signs of megalomania from Mr Mugabe which reached their peak with a disastrous military adventure in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The referendum delivered a "no vote" that sent shockwaves through the elite - it was the regime's first electoral defeat and the last time they would leave democratic choices up to the voters alone. A campaign of land invasions of white-owned farms and divisive racial politics followed along with two rigged elections, the second a direct presidential contest between himself and the man he had come to refer to as the "white man's tea boy".

After the 2002 election Mr Tsvangirai was referred to by his supporters as "the president", acknowledging what the electoral commission had refused to - that he had won. He would now face a two-year trial on charges of treason, after which he was eventually acquitted.

The MDC itself appeared to be fatally damaged in 2005 when it split into two factions, the second one under Mr Mutambara.

But the television pictures of Mr Tsvangirai's release from a police cell, showing him defiant despite a cracked skull, did more to rescue his credibility than any speech could have. His failure to reach a deal with the Mutambara faction has tainted this heroic return but in Zimbabwe "two cheeks" is the only man most people can imagine taking over from Comrade Bob.

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