THE Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which entered the country's first all-race election a week before the ballot, appears headed for a narrow victory in strife-torn KwaZulu/Natal Province.
This is the view of Western diplomats and election monitors in the province.
A surprise win for Inkatha in Natal is seen in political and diplomatic circles as the best outcome. ``I think this would be the best result for stability in the province,'' says Natal University political scientist Mervyn Frost. ``The IFP's honor would have been restored, but the ANC-led central government would still call the shots through its control of the purse strings.''
The final result will be known only today - 10 days after voters first went to the polls.
With 50 percent of votes counted in KwaZulu/Natal yesterday, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha had 57 percent of the vote and a commanding lead over the African National Congress (ANC), which had 28 percent. The ruling National Party (NP) held about 13 percent.
But last-minute wrangling over the count in the northern town of Empangeni forced the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to hold back results in the province - the scene of a 10-year civil war between Zulu supporters of the ANC and Inkatha.
Western diplomats predict Inkatha will achieve a narrow outright majority of between 50 and 52 percent, with the ANC winning about 35 percent of the vote, the NP 11 percent, the liberal Democratic Party 1 percent, and several smaller parties 1 percent.
The ANC, poised to take over the government on May 10, has won a clear majority of the national vote (64.9 percent), but it is not yet clear whether it will achieve the two-thirds majority (66.7 percent) that would enable an ANC-led government to draft the final constitution. The NP has 20.5 percent.
The credibility of a close result in the province and the ANC attainment or loss of a two-thirds majority are likely to be in question because of administrative bungling, computer fraud, electoral fraud, and political horse-trading between the ANC and IFP in Natal.
``The delays in counting have cast doubt over the election and everything flowing from it,'' said the authoritative daily newspaper Business Day in a hard-hitting front-page editorial yesterday. ``If the Natal vote was excessively flawed by fraud, some means must be found to hold the election in the province again.''
But IEC chairman Johann Kriegler, who is responsible for administering and adjudicating the election, has vowed to support any political deal struck between Inkatha and the ANC in Natal.
``Let's not get overly squeamish about it,'' he told journalists at an IEC news briefing Tuesday. The parties ``are in a power game with each other, and if they want to settle on the basis that they withdraw objections [to results], there's nothing wrong with it ethically or legally.''
Chief Buthelezi welcomed the ANC's decision Tuesday to withdraw objections against Inkatha, but the ANC denied that a deal had been struck.
Business Day criticized Judge Kriegler, and claimed he had damaged his own and the IEC's credibility: ``Kriegler has to come completely clean, even if that exposes his own incompetence and that of the electoral machine he has headed.''
Kriegler insisted at the news conference that it was not his duty to ensure that the results were accurate. ``We have been asked to certify that the particular political process is substantially free and fair.''
President Frederik de Klerk and President-elect Nelson Mandela have indicated that they will abide by the certified result.
If Inkatha won Natal with a plurality of votes - but failed to achieve 50 percent - the NP would hold the balance of power in a national unity government in the province.
``Ironically, the ANC and IFP would probably have more common interest with each other than with the NP,'' Professor Frost says. ``The NP would be more interested in protecting white privilege.''