South Africa started counting votes after an election that puts President Cyril Ramaphosa’s tenuous grip over his party to the test and hopes of reviving a flagging economy at stake.
While opinion polls all point to a sixth outright national election win for the African National Congress, the margin of victory will be crucial for Ramaphosa after he scraped through a party leadership vote in December 2017. With about 8% of ballots counted by 5:58 a.m. in Pretoria on Thursday, the ANC had secured 53%. The final outcome is only expected on May 11.
Analysts say the 66-year-old lawyer and former labor union leader needs a decisive win to quell opposition in the faction-riven ANC to give him the clout to push through reforms needed to spur growth in Africa’s most-industrialized economy. A narrow victory could embolden his critics and may force the party into coalitions to retain control of some provinces, limiting his policy options.
“Ramaphosa is weak and vulnerable inside the ANC but strong in the government and protected by society,” said Xolani Dube, an analyst at the Xubera Institute for Research and Development in the eastern city of Durban. “He needs to navigate how to serve the interest of two masters — the ANC constituency that reluctantly placed into power and the society at large, which holds the key to keeping him safe from the wolves of his own party.”
The ANC share of the vote has declined from a peak of more than 69% in 2004, when the economy was expanding at around 5% a year and the government was cutting taxes. Its support plummeted to 54.5% in 2016 municipal elections when its supporters shunned the ballot amid weak growth and allegations of graft and misrule during Jacob Zuma’s presidency.
The ANC forced Zuma to resign in February last year but after initial euphoria following Ramaphosa taking over, confidence has slumped and is now at multi-year lows. The rand is more than 20% weaker against the dollar over that period. The currency gained for a second day on Wednesday, as the vote proceeded peacefully. The equity and bond markets were closed for the election-day holiday.
Investors are expecting Ramaphosa to use a strong mandate to implement structural reforms to lure investment and spark an economy that has expanded by less than 1.5% for the past four years. He would still face an unemployment rate of more than 27%, persistently high inequality and ballooning debt. The government has failed to close a yawning fiscal gap despite tax hikes over the past five years.
The election will allocate seats in the 400-member National Assembly and nine provincial legislatures to parties based on the proportion of the vote they win. A first meeting of the new parliament has been provisionally set for May 22, where the president is due to be officially elected.
Also at stake in this election is the ANC’s majority in the province of Gauteng, which includes the capital, Pretoria, and the economic hub of Johannesburg. The ruling party lost both cities in the 2016 municipal election, with the Democratic Alliance taking control with support from smaller parties.
The ANC’s main challengers among 48 parties contesting the national vote are Mmusi Maimane’s center-right DA and the populist Economic Freedom Fighters, led by former ANC youth wing leader Julius Malema.