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ANC teeters on edge of supermajority

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has won a clear victory in this week’s parliamentary elections, but questions remained late Thursday over whether the party would continue to hold the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution at will.

Despite anger over poor services and stubbornly high unemployment, the former liberation party was seeing only a modest decline in its level of support, from close to 70% in the 2004 general election to just under 67%, with more than half the vote counted.

Supporters of the nation’s controversial president-in-waiting, ANC head Jacob Zuma, danced in the streets Thursday night as the results were announced. Analysts, however, said that Zuma may find it difficult to implement an ambitious social agenda as the nation’s commodities-driven economy is being battered by the global downturn.

In South Africa, presidents are voted in by parliament, and as the ANC party president, Zuma is certain to become the nation’s president next month. He told jubilant supporters in Johannesburg that the party’s vote would never sink below 60%.

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“For those who do not know the ANC . . . you touch the ANC, you touch a lion,” he said.

With more than 10 million votes counted, the ANC had 66.85% of the vote. Failure by the dominant party to win a two-thirds majority would provide an important psychological victory for opposition parties.

A voter turnout figure was not released but was expected to be between 77% and 80%, a substantial increase over the 70% of the last national election. The ANC made a concerted effort to mobilize young voters in support of Zuma.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, was getting about 16% of the vote, its best showing ever. The DA looked set to take Western Cape province, with a large “colored,” or mixed-race, population, from the ANC for the first time. The party is led by a white woman, Helen Zille.

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A new opposition party, the Congress of the People, formed just four months ago by ANC dissidents opposed to Zuma, was winning more than 7%.

“You have now got at least the potential for some consolidation of the opposition vote around two or maybe three significant players instead of a whole spread of smaller parties,” said Paul Graham of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.

Zuma’s earthy populist appeal won support among poor black voters, but charges of corruption, dropped shortly before the election, caused disquiet among some educated, middle-class voters.

He will take power as the global downturn bites into the economic successes South Africa has enjoyed in the last few years, and he will be under intense pressure to meet public demand for a marked increase in housing, jobs, security, education and healthcare.

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Graham predicted that Zuma’s honeymoon would be brief. “There was quite a lot of discontent and protest during the election by taxi drivers and people on housing lists, and I suspect that will continue quite quickly after the election,” he said.

Analysts predicted that the global downturn would leave South Africa little room for big increases in social spending and that this could lead to tensions in the ruling party, with Zuma’s left-wing allies determined to play a greater part in government. Zuma, however, has reassured the markets that South Africa’s economic policies will not lurch to the left.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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