South Africa's National Party, which created apartheid and then dismantled racial segregation after ruling for 40 years, appears to have passed its first electoral test as a viable opposition party.
Preliminary results of bitterly contested local elections held last Wednesday in the National Party's traditional stronghold of Western Cape Province put the party well ahead of its opponents. The National Party (NP) won a majority of seats in five out of six district councils in metropolitan Cape Town and in 23 of 27 rural councils.
National implications seen
The elections last week did not include voting for the Western Cape's parliament, which the NP won control of in 1994 elections.
The announcement of final results, initially expected this weekend, was delayed after the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party of President Nelson Mandela said it would seek a Supreme Court order to audit disputed ballots. However, the recount is not expected to overturn the apparently overwhelming majority won by the NP.
Dawie de Villiers, NP leader in the Western Cape, said the vote vindicated his party's decision last month to leave South Africa's coalition government to play a more constructive role in the opposition.
"It went well," he said.
Analysts say the vote in the Western Cape - 1.3 million people cast ballots in Cape Town and 160,000 in rural areas - was less about local government than the start of the campaign for next general elections in 1999. It was essentially a two-horse race, marred by mutual claims of intimidation and harassment.
"It was an election to determine the future of the ANC and NP," says Willie Esterhuyse, a political scientist at Stellenbosch University. "It's not about local affairs. It's about image and popularity - absolutely," he says. "For the NP, it is very important to mobilize anti-ANC feeling and be an effective opposition.
"It was a vote about opposition - the NP's opposition on the national level and the ANC's opposition to the NP hold on the provincial Western Cape level," Mr. Esterhuyse says.
The country's two most prominent politicians - Mr. Mandela and his predecessor, NP leader F.W. de Klerk - campaigned actively for the election, but rarely talked about local issues such as sewage and roads.
The Western Cape is the only one of South Africa's nine provinces won by the NP in the 1994 national elections, with 53 percent of the votes.
Like the 1994 elections, which buried apartheid, voting was largely along class and racial lines this time, with the ANC relying on poor, black constituencies and the NP its traditional white Afrikaner strongholds.
Coloureds provide key votes
The vote, held in the seat of the national parliament and where white settlers first arrived in the 17th century, was seen as a test of the ANC's ability to woo Coloureds, the mixed-race descendants of white Dutch settlers and blacks.
ANC leaders said the results showed its support in rural areas rose to 32 percent from 9 percent in 1994. But party leaders expressed concern about the pattern of racial polarization in voting and conceded that more work needed to be done to mobilize Coloured support.
Coloureds comprise 60 percent of voters in the region. In national multiracial elections in 1994 they overwhelmingly voted for the NP. Like whites, they speak Afrikaans and under apartheid enjoyed higher status than blacks. Many now lament the loss of that comparatively privileged status and complain that the country's new affirmative-action policies favor mainly blacks.
The NP, which won less than 21 percent of the votes in the presidential elections in 1994 versus 63 percent for the ANC, has been looking for a new image. In February the party appointed as secretary general the youthful Roelf Meyer, the country's constitutional affairs minister and the party's negotiator in multiparty talks during the transition to black majority rule.
The next important local election is next month in KwaZulu-Natal Province, where some 50 to 80 lives are lost a month in a conflict between the ANC and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) led by Home Affairs Minister Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
While the Western Cape election was a test of the NP's new strategy, the KwaZulu-Natal contest is seen to be crucial to that province's stability. The voting in KwaZulu-Natal already has been delayed a couple of times because of the violence.
The ANC governs the other seven of South Africa's nine provinces.