South African ruling party leads in elections

South AfricaSouth Africa’s governing party led in preliminary results Thursday from a parliamentary election expected to propel Jacob Zuma to the presidency in a remarkable feat for a man once embroiled in sex and corruption scandals.

Though a victory is expected for the African National Congress, the party is less sure of whether it can hold onto its two-thirds majority in what has become South Africa’s most contested election since the country’s first multiracial vote in 1994.

Parliament elects South Africa’s president by a simple majority, putting Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.

The ANC views Zuma as the first leader who can energize voters since the legendary Nelson Mandela. But critics say Zuma is too beholden to unions and leftists, and will not be able to fulfill promises of creating jobs and a stronger social safety net amid the global recession.

Preliminary results from the 6.45 million ballots counted so far Thursday showed the ANC leading with just over 65 percent. A record 23 million South Africans registered to vote. A 77 percent turnout has been recorded at those polling stations where counting has finished. Polling officials estimated a final turnout of about 80 percent. Final results are expected late Thursday or possibly Friday.

The largely white opposition Democratic Alliance, according to the preliminary count, had about 18 percent. It was expected to take South Africa’s richest province, the Western Cape, from the ANC.

The Congress of the People ? formed by a breakaway faction of the ANC last year ? was trailing with just over 8 percent in preliminary results, despite expectations at one point that it would post a serious challenge to the ruling party.

Turnout was heavy, and some stations had temporary ballot shortages or struggled because ballot boxes filled so quickly.

The ANC has swept every poll since the first post-apartheid election in 1994. In 2004, the ANC won 69.9 percent of the vote. But the party needs to keep its two-thirds majority to enact major budgetary plans or legislation unchallenged, or to change the constitution.

The Democratic Alliance looked set to win the Western Cape ? the heart of South Africa’s wine, fruit and tourism industries.

Opposition leader Helen Zille, who has won praises as the mayor of Cape Town, had courted mixed race voters, who account for more than half the population in the province but only a small minority nationwide. Her strategy apparently paid off.

The ANC has never had a solid base in the province, and won it in the last elections by a narrow majority thanks to the collapse of the New National Party, which had traditionally enjoyed strong local support. But since 2004, the local ANC has been consumed by infighting and power struggles. Zille had said her key target was to win the Western Cape and break the ANC’s stranglehold on power.

The opposition tried to paint Zuma as corrupt, antidemocratic and intent on plotting with communists to destroy the hard-won economic gains since apartheid ended.

Zille described Zuma on Wednesday as “a one-man constitution-wrecking machine.”

But South Africa’s poor black majority connects on a visceral level with Zuma’s deprived background. His warmth and ease on the campaign trail, where he was quick to flash a gap-toothed smile or break into song, is reminiscent of Mandela’s style. It is also a crowd-pleasing contrast to the aloof, intellectual Thabo Mbeki, the ANC rival Zuma ousted as one of his first steps on the road to the presidency.

In Zuma’s native KwaNxamalala village, his candidacy brought a massive win for the ANC in the former stronghold of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party. According to the final tally released from the school where Zuma and about 1,000 of his neighbors voted Wednesday, the ANC beat the IFP by 846 votes to 178. It was an almost exact reversal of the last vote, in 2004.

The ANC has been accused of moving too slowly over the last 15 years to improve the lives of South Africa’s black majority. During this campaign, the ANC has stressed its commitment to creating jobs and a stronger social safety net for this nation of nearly 50 million, which is plagued by poverty, unemployment and an AIDS epidemic.

The ANC launched its election campaign with promises of heavy public spending to create jobs and improve education and health. But with Western economies slowing, demand for South African exports has declined and production has dropped, causing some layoffs and fears of more. At the end of the campaign, Zuma was talking not about creating jobs, but staving off job losses.

Zuma, 67, was fired by Mbeki as deputy president in 2005 after he was implicated in an arms deal bribery scandal. After a series of protracted legal battles, prosecutors dropped all charges against him earlier this month, saying the case had been manipulated for political reasons and the criminal charges would never be revived. But they said they still believed they had a strong case against Zuma.

In 2006, the former guerrilla leader was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend. But he has been ridiculed for his testimony during the trial that he believed showering after the encounter, which he said was consensual, would protect him from AIDS.

Zuma joined the ANC in 1959 and by 21 he was arrested while trying to leave the country illegally. He was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. In prison, Zuma resumed his schooling and began making a name for himself among ANC prisoners.

He left South Africa in 1975 for 15 years of exile in neighboring Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia, where he was appointed chief of the ANC’s intelligence department. Following the lifting of the ANC ban in 1990, Zuma was one of the first of the group’s leaders to return to South Africa.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.