S. African poll puts Botha firmly in driver's seat

South Africa's Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha and his more liberal lieutenants in the Cabinet are all smiles after a by- election (special election) win in a vast rural constituency that reminds many visitors of Texas.

The voting was in the highly conservative Orange Free State province constituency of Fauresmith (pronounced four-ay-smith), and the contest had all the characteristics of an Afrikaner "broedertwis" -- a bitter wrangle to the death between brothers.

Three parties were in the running: the ruling National Party, the ultra-right-wing Herstigte Nasionale Party (Reconstituted National Party), and the relatively new, also right-wing, National Conservative Party led by pudgy Dr. Connie Mulder. A former Cabinet minister, Dr. Mulder was drummed out of the National Party because he lied to Parliament and because of his involvement in a notorious government scandal over the misuse of public money.

The Prime Minister took no chances in this election, and for good reason.

He has had some nasty frights in recent elections. In some by-elections (special elections) in rural constituencies in the Transvaal Province last year, National Party majorities were cut to ribbons and Mr. Botha's right- wing opponents were ecstatic -- including his then main rival for leadership in the National Party, Dr. Andries Treurnicht.

As a result Mr. Botha had good cause to take Fauresmith seriously. Nine Cabinet ministers, three deputy ministers, and at least 20 National Party members of Parliament were sent to blitz the area. And Mr. Botha himself addressed a rowdy public meeting. Although there was fighting in the packed hall and one man was thrown out of the second floor gallery by enraged opponents , it finally worked out well for Mr. Botha. The National Party romped home with thousands of votes to spare in what Mr. Botha himself described with relish as a "beautiful victory."

To fill his political cup almost to overflowing a national poll by one of the most accurate organizations in the country showed at the weekend that Mr. Botha has risen powerfully in public esteem among whites of all political persuasions -- except right-wing extremists who hate him more than ever.

The pollsters also point out that the liberal Afrikaans leader of the main white opposition party, the Progressive Federal Party, Dr. Frederik van zyl Slabbert, has achieved the sort of popularity among all white groups that is "amazing" for the leader of an opposition party.

He is more popular even with National Party members, for example, than many members of the present Cabinet.

So, with an apparently more enlightened attitude prevailing among whites, it seems there is considerable scope for Mr. Botha to take up his promises to remove hurtful racial discrimination in the country, and move much more effectively away from apartheid than he has done so far for fear of a right-wing backlash.

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