JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – After one of the highest voter turnouts in South Africa’s history, second only to that of the 1994 election that ended apartheid, early vote counting shows the African National Congress almost certain to hold onto power.
By mid-afternoon, with 7.2 million of the estimated 23 million votes counted, the ANC held a firm lead with 66 percent of the vote. The Democratic Alliance (DA), a white liberal party based in the Western Cape, came in a distant second with 16.7 percent. The Congress of the People (COPE), a split-away party of former ANC members, came in third with 8 percent.
The votes counted thus far are primarily from urban areas where the DA is at its strongest, so the vote tallies for the ANC and COPE may increase as results stream in from more distant rural areas and dense urban townships, where the two parties are highly competitive.
The sheer number of voters, which left many polling stations unable to hand out ballot papers in the waning hours of the election, is a product of a highly politicized environment in South Africa’s liberation movement, where two main factions fought for control of the ANC – splitting the party in two.
But a second factor, mentioned by voters on election day, was also the unexpected inspiration that many disenchanted South Africans felt by watching the election of US President Barack Obama. If a black man could be elected president in the US, then perhaps change was also possible in an overwhelmingly ANC-dominant country like South Africa.
“The Obama factor motivated both youths and older traditional white voters,” many of whom hadn’t voted since the end of apartheid, says Adam Habib, a political analyst and vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. “The DA has awakened and attracted white and colored voters. I have a feeling they have consolidated their position and are no longer a provincial party.”
Officials for the Independent Electoral Commission say that the current pace of vote-counting suggests that final results may not be known until Friday or Saturday. Results from polling stations in rural districts, particularly in rural Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, and in urban townships from Cape Town and Johannesburg are still uncounted, and could swell the vote counts of both the ANC and COPE.