By Onke Ngcuka, Emma Rumney and Naledi Mashishi
PRETORIA (Reuters) – The African National Congress easily won South Africa’s general election but its share of the vote fell, reflecting anger at corruption scandals and racial inequalities that remain entrenched a generation after the party took power.
The turnout for Wednesday’s vote was markedly lower than at the last election in 2014, falling to 66% from 73.5%, according to the electoral commission, while the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), also saw its vote share fall.
ANC Deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte said “confidence is returning and we need to correct our mistakes”. Other ANC officials had already acknowledged the decline in support for the party compared with five years ago.
Provisional results on Saturday showed the ruling party secured 57.51% of the parliamentary vote. The DA picked up 20.76% and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters took 10.79%, the Independent Electoral Commission said on its website.
The ANC’s victory secures it enough seats in parliament to give President Cyril Ramaphosa another five years in office but may leave him short of ammunition to battle party rivals who oppose his reforms to galvanize the economy and counter graft.
It was the worst electoral performance by the late Nelson Mandela’s former liberation movement, which has governed South Africa uninterrupted since the country’s first free election marked the end of white minority rule in 1994. The ANC had not previously won less than 60% of the vote in a national poll.
At the last election in 2014, the ANC won 62% of votes, the DA 22% and the EFF 6%.
The provisional results also showed the ANC won a tight provincial race in Gauteng, where South Africa’s biggest city and commercial center Johannesburg and the administrative capital Pretoria are located, with 50.19% of the vote.
Losing control of Gauteng and having to form a coalition there would been a blow to Ramaphosa, who replaced scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma as president in February 2018.
He had sought to re-engage ANC voters whose enthusiasm for the party has been eroded by its faltering efforts to address corruption, high unemployment and persistent racial disparities in housing, services and the distribution of land.
Africa’s most advanced economy remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, according to the World Bank.
The ANC retained control of eight of the country’s nine provinces in separate elections also held on Wednesday, with the DA keeping hold of the Western Cape, home to Cape Town, where parliament resides.
Analysts had said a poor showing by the ANC would embolden opponents of Ramaphosa and risk a challenge to his leadership.
Fikile Mbalula, a former cabinet minister who was in charge of the party’s election campaign, said the ANC’s 10 million votes were the result of hard work by its leadership. He hailed union leader turned business tycoon Ramaphosa’s role in starting to undo negative public perceptions of the ANC.
“People love him,” Mbalula said. “And from where we were, we were battered in terms of our image and he was a game-changer for the ANC.”
The 66-year-old president was “very safe” from internal challenges, he said, adding: “The ANC is very strong in protecting their leadership. Even if there are remnants trying their thing, they will not succeed.”
The ANC achieved its best parliamentary election result in 2004 under former president Thabo Mbeki, when it won 69 percent of the vote. But its support fell under Zuma, and it lost control of big cities like the commercial capital Johannesburg in local government elections in 2016.
Election officials said voting had generally progressed smoothly on Wednesday, with isolated disruptions due to bad weather, power outages or community protests.
But 27 smaller parties of 48 that ran in total sent a letter to the electoral commission via a law firm on Friday, alleging irregularities in the vote and threatening legal action.
The Electoral Commission said it would oppose any legal action aimed at interfering in the conduct of elections and finalization and announcement of results.
(Additional reporting by Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Catherine Evans)
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