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South Africa polls: ANC leads but still miles away from the 50% majority

South Africa was heading closer to the reality of a national coalition government for the first time and a series of complex negotiations to achieve that, as partial election results Friday put the ruling African National Congress well short of a majority.

With more than 65% of votes counted across the country’s nine provinces, the ANC — which has held a majority for 30 years since the end of apartheid — had received just under 42% of the national vote in Wednesday’s election, according to the partial results as counting continued. That represented a huge drop from the 57.5% it received in the last national election in 2019, although there was still some way to go.

The ANC was still widely expected to be the biggest party, but its being so far off 50% at this stage of an election was unprecedented, analysts said.

The commission that runs the election has said the final results will be announced by Sunday, possibly sooner. While all the major parties indicated they would wait for those final numbers before entering any coalition talks, the country’s focus now was firmly on whom the ANC might approach to jointly govern Africa’s most developed economy if it loses its majority.

ANC deputy secretary general Nomvula Mokonyane said the party’s leadership would meet on Friday and “reflect on what is good for the country.”

It was anyone’s guess what the ANC might do, given it has said so little about any coalition plans and that there are dozens of opposition parties contesting the election. The three other major parties are the centrist main opposition Democratic Alliance, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters and the new MK Party led by former South African President Jacob Zuma, who once led the ANC.

Should the ANC lose its majority, it would also have implications for President Cyril Ramaphosa. South Africans vote for parties in elections and the president is then chosen by lawmakers in Parliament. If it loses its majority, the ANC would need help from other parties to reelect Ramaphosa for a second term.

There is time pressure because Parliament must sit within 14 days of the election results being announced to choose a president. Also, the longer it takes to form a coalition, the more chance of market instability.

Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen said he was open to working with the ANC, although he would have to first speak with a group of other smaller parties with which he has a preelection agreement. He said the possibility of the country’s biggest political shift in 30 years “opens up a whole new universe for politics in South Africa and to start building something better for the people of South Africa.”

Steenhuisen had said on election day: “All bets are off in this election. We’re heading into coalition country.”

With votes counted from more than 15,000 of the 23,000 polling stations, the ANC led by some way, as expected. The Democratic Alliance was second on around 23% of the vote. Zuma’s MK Party had 12% and the EFF around 9%.

Coalition negotiations could depend on how far the ANC falls short of a majority in the final results, if indeed it remains under 50%. If it’s just short of a majority, it could approach several smaller parties to get past 50%. If it is some way off — as it was in the latest results — it might have to work with one of those three main opposition parties. They have very different ideologies.

Analysts say an ANC-EFF or an ANC-MK coalition could spook investors given EFF and MK pledges to nationalize parts of South Africa’s economy, the most developed on the African continent. The inclusion of the business-friendly DA in a coalition government would be welcomed by investors, according to Aleix Montana, the southern Africa analyst at the British-based risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.

The ANC has had a clear majority for all of South Africa’s democracy since the party swept to power in a 1994 election which officially ended the apartheid system of white minority rule, leading Nelson Mandela to become the country’s first Black president. It has been the dominant political force and slipping below 50% would be a momentous change for South Africa, even if the signs were on the wall.

The ANC’s support has steadily declined from a high of nearly 70% of the vote 20 years ago as South Africa grapples with deep socioeconomic problems, including widespread poverty and now one of the worst unemployment rates in the world at 32%. Poverty and unemployment disproportionately affect South Africa’s Black majority that make up 80% of the population and were the core of the ANC’s support over the years.

While the inequalities of apartheid were always going to be hard to solve, and the ANC was praised for making progress in its first 10 years in government, it is now being blamed by many for failures in basic government services, numerous corruption scandals and most recently an electricity crisis that led to rolling blackouts across the country of 62 million.

A projection from a government agency and national broadcaster SABC, based on vote returns, was estimating on Friday that the ANC would end up with just over 40%, a drop of around 17 percentage points, which would be a stunning result in the context of South Africa.

Additional sources • AP

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