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South Africa set to elect populist Jacob Zuma

The polarizing ANC leader is expected to draw record numbers of voters to the polls in Wednesday's presidential race.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / April 21, 2009

African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma speaks during a news conference on the eve of a parliamentary vote in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Tuesday. Barring a dramatic reversal in the polls, the African National Congress will come out on top, with Mr. Zuma set to be the next president.

Denis Farrell/AP

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Johannesburg, South Africa

Even before they cast ballots on Wednesday, most South Africans feel certain that they know who will be their next president. Barring a dramatic reversal in the polls, the African National Congress will come out on top, with the ANC's populist leader Jacob Zuma set to be the next president.

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But far from discouraging voter turnout, the inevitability of Mr. Zuma's presidency seems likely to drive a record turnout of voters, with an estimated 80 percent of 23 million registered voters expected to cast their votes.

Those who love Zuma see a warm, personable, and deeply rooted man who knows what it means to be poor. Those who hate him see a former ANC intelligence chief with a grade school education; a polygamist who was accused and acquitted of rape; a wheeler-dealer accused of bribe-taking, although corruption charges were eventually dropped. Whether to block him or support him, South Africans are expected toshow up in droves to vote.

"Despite the fact that we already know who is going to be a winner, this is an important election," says Steven Friedman, a political analyst at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, a think tank in Tshwane, formerly known as Pretoria. This could be the highest voter turnout since the end of apartheid in 1994, Mr. Friedman says, and a sign of whether the ANC's hold on power – as the party of Nelson Mandela and liberation – is finally starting to slip.

The ANC now faces competition

The energy in this election has as much to do with Zuma as it does with the fact that the ANC finally has competition for the black majority vote, with the formation of a breakaway party known as the Congress of the People, or COPE. "We were getting to the stage, where everyone knew who was going to win, but COPE has shaken things up a bit," says Friedman. "COPE's formation energized politics, not only with their supporters, but they also energized the ANC."

COPE formed in late 2008, a year after an ANC party conference shoved aside then-ANC president Thabo Mbeki, who eventually stepped down as the country's president in September.

Unlike other opposition parties, COPE's leaders have "liberation credentials" from having fought apartheid. Its founders are mainly functionaries loyal to Mr. Mbeki.

"COPE has galvanized youth in a way that hasn't happened before," says Adam Habib, a political analyst and vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. "I think the split in the ANC has energized the COPE and significantly galvanized members of ANC as well. Now anything can happen. Whether the ANC gets two-thirds of the vote or not, we shall see, but I think that question is of symbolic value for how to judge Jacob Zuma's victory."