PRETORIA (Reuters) - The African National Congress was headed for victory in South Africa’s election on Friday, although the party was on course for its worst performance since it took power 25 years ago.
The ANC held a commanding lead with 90% of the voting districts counted, according to the electoral commission’s website. It had secured 57.38% of the vote so far, while the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) was on 21.01% and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had garnered 10.33%.
ANC officials acknowledged the decline in support for the party since the last election in 2014, when it won 62% of the vote, but said the results were still strong enough.
“People have shown they are willing to forgive the ANC,” said Ronald Lamola, a member of the ANC’s top governing body. “We are looking at a clear mandate for our policies.”
Many of those voting on Wednesday for a new parliament and nine provincial legislatures had said they were frustrated by rampant corruption, high unemployment and racial inequalities that persist a generation after the end of white minority rule.
Nelson Mandela’s former liberation party had not won less than a 60% share of the vote since it swept to power in South Africa’s first all-race election in 1994.
Under President Cyril Ramaphosa, who replaced scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma as head of state in 2018, the ANC had hoped to arrest a slide in support on its faltering efforts to address racial disparities in land ownership, housing and services. Africa’s most advanced economy remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, according to the World Bank.
“The ANC will be elected with a record low of 27 percent of the eligible population backing them, compared with 47 percent in 1999,” said Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at Intellidex. “This kind of dynamic is not a mandate nor an impetus to change.”
Analysts had said a poor showing would embolden opponents of Ramaphosa and risk a potential challenge to his leadership.
ANC Deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte said the party was “not unhappy” with the vote share it looked set to receive, which was in line with internal forecasts.
“We’re not surprised at all,” she said, adding that Ramaphosa’s position in the party was “still good”.
“It’s a good election result for Ramaphosa as he does get a mandate. A lot of people were afraid he would poll 54% or even below that and we would get a political struggle within ANC. I don’t think that will happen,” said Carl Vermassen, fund manager, emerging markets debt at Vontobel Asset Management.
“What’s happening in Gauteng is not as clear. It’s the province with Johannesburg and Pretoria and accounts for around a third of the GDP of South Africa.”
The partial results showed the ANC ahead in Gauteng province, where South Africa’s biggest city and commercial centre Johannesburg and the administrative capital Pretoria are located, but its lead was just below 50 percent.
Failure to cross that threshold would be a blow to Ramaphosa as the ANC would have to run it as part of a coalition.
The party controls eight of the country’s nine provinces. The DA has controlled the Western Cape, home to Cape Town, where parliament resides, since 2009 and held a more comfortable lead there on Friday.
“Even though we lost some votes, I can guarantee you we held the centre,” Mmusi Maimane, the DA leader told reporters.
The DA’s share of the national vote so far was down slightly from the 22% it won in 2014, while the EFF gained from 6%.
The rand rose against the dollar, partly on the poll results and an emerging markets rally. Traders said the currency would remain volatile.
“As the ANC win is digested, markets will swiftly shift their focus to the subsequent actions of the ruling party, including the announcement of cabinet ... as well as policies relating to expropriation of land without compensation,” said Bianca Botes, corporate treasury manager at Botes Peregrine Treasury Solutions.
Ramaphosa won the ANC leadership in December 2017, narrowly defeating a faction allied with Zuma on promises to fight graft, improve public services, create jobs and hasten land reform, and replaced Zuma as president three months later.
But the party remains divided, with some influential Zuma supporters opposed to his agenda.
The ANC won more than 69% of the vote in the 2004 parliamentary election under former president Thabo Mbeki but support fell under Zuma, and it lost control of big cities like Johannesburg in local government elections in 2016.
Election officials said voting in general had progressed smoothly but that there had been isolated disruptions caused by bad weather, unscheduled power outages or community protests.
Additional reporting by Mfuneko Toyana and Alexander Winning in Pretoria, Tom Arnold in London; Writing by Tiisetso Motsoeneng, Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and James Macharia; Editing by Catherine Evans