HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Here in Zimbabwe's capital city, the streets are plastered with posters bearing the smiling, round face of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Graffiti bearing the initials of his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is everywhere.
These alone are signs of changing times in Zimbabwe. For the first time in the country's short history, voters going to the polls this weekend have a real alternative to the 22-year rule of President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF Party.
In three short years, Mr. Tsvangirai has built this alternative. And despite widespread political violence aimed at MDC supporters, several polls have shown Tsvangirai with a substantial lead over the incumbent.
Mugabe dismisses the MDC as a "stooge party" and says Tsvangirai is a front for white colonial interests. Newspaper advertisements for the ZANU-PF have even called the opposition candidate British Prime Minister Tony Blair's "tea boy."
But Tsvangirai began as a ZANU-PF Party man, and has record of political activism that stretches back more than two decades.
The eldest son of a bricklayer, Tsvangirai's political schooling took place in the back rooms of labor politics and in the depths of a Zimbabwean mine. During his 10 years at the Trojan Nickel Mine in Bindura, 50 miles north of Harare, Tsvangirai rose to branch chairman of the national mine workers union, and by 1988 he was general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in charge of the country's labor unions.
Under his leadership, the ZCTU moved into a more antagonistic position with government.
In the early 1990s, Tsvangirai challenged Mugabe's economic restructuring program, which the union believed would harm urban workers. He helped the ZCTU wage a successful battle against several proposed tax increases, including one that would have funded an increase in the pensions of war veterans. Those same war veterans later led bands of landless squatters who occupied much of the country's white-owned farmland.
"[Tsvangirai] led the ZCTU to its rightful place as a labor movement and a part of civil society," says Wellington Chibebe, the current secretary general of the ZCTU and a longtime member of the organization's governing board.
Tsvangirai's wife of 24 years, Susan, says this period was one of gradual disillusionment. By 1997, when eight men tried to throw her husband from the eighth floor of his office in retaliation for helping to organize a national protest of the new taxes, he had lost all faith in the government. The opposition candidate still bears a long scar on his forehead from that encounter.
"He used to be a good man, Mugabe," says Mrs. Tsvangirai. "We all supported him. My husband was even active in the party. But when [Morgan] started working in the trade union, he realized that the government wasn't supporting the worker."
In September 1999, the MDC was launched by the ZCTU and a variety of civil-society organizations representing women and students. Tsvangirai was unanimously voted president of the new party.
Although it was less than a year old, the MDC won 57 seats in Zimbabwe's June 2000 parliamentary elections, compared with 62 for the ruling party. Tsvangirai, however, who chose to run in his rural home constituency of Buhera instead of in his party's stronghold, Harare, lost in that election.
Central to the MDC's platform has been a return to law and order. Despite widespread attacks on supporters by government-run youth militias and repeated legislative changes intended to limit his party's ability to campaign, Tsvangirai is committed to nonviolence and working within the current legal framework. The party has largely obeyed the government's new laws, including a a requirement that political gatherings gain the approval of local police.
In recent days, while Mugabe has hinted at retribution against MDC supporters after the election, Tsvangirai has called for national healing. He wants to form a truth-and-reconciliation commission, modeled after that of neighboring South Africa, to help Zimbabwe overcome the past several years of violence.
The Zimbabwean people, he said, have "gone through nearly three years of nonstop violence, intimidation, and political intolerance. They are now crying for peace and reconciliation."
While the current government has failed to put forward any formal economic plan, the MDC has presented a detailed program that has won praise from the international community.
Tsvangirai says he still believes that the MDC will emerge victorious from this weekend's elections. First on his agenda, he said, will be disbanding the youth militias that have imposed a reign of terror on rural areas and dealing with the severe food crisis gripping much of the country.
If the MDC is not elected to power, however, Tsvangirai has warned that the result for Zimbabwe would be tragic.
"If we lose this election," he said, "God forbid, this country is doomed."