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An election official empties a ballot box as counting begins after polls closed in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 8, 2019.Mike Hutchings/Reuters

South Africa’s former liberation movement, the African National Congress, has fallen to its worst national election result since the end of apartheid in 1994, suffering a sharp decline in votes but surviving with a reduced majority.

With two-thirds of votes counted, the ANC had won about 57 per cent in this week’s election, its lowest total ever in a national election, as South Africans rebelled against years of corruption scandals and economic mismanagement.

It was an embarrassing result for the party that was once led by Nelson Mandela, the liberation hero who became South Africa’s first democratic president after apartheid. Many people did not even bother to register for this election. The ANC is projected to win only about 10 million votes from the 36 million South African adults who were eligible to vote.

ANC takes early lead in South African election as Ramaphosa seeks stronger anti-corruption mandate

Despite the setback, the ANC will retain power because the opposition vote is increasingly fragmented and its biggest rival parties have failed to capitalize on the widespread disillusionment with the governing party.

Voter turnout fell to its worst-ever level and smaller parties proliferated as South Africans expressed their disenchantment with the ANC and the other main parties.

A key question now is whether President Cyril Ramaphosa can use his election victory to quell the factional feuds that have dogged him since he replaced Jacob Zuma in that role last year. Supporters of Mr. Zuma have waged a persistent fightback against Mr. Ramaphosa, damaging his anti-corruption campaign and weakening his authority.

The Zuma faction will try to exploit the decline in ANC support, pointing out that Mr. Zuma led the ANC to a stronger victory with 62 per cent of the vote in the last national election, in 2014. But others will cite ANC internal polling that suggested the party would have lost its majority if it hadn’t forced Mr. Zuma to resign last year under a cloud of corruption allegations.

The ANC’s elections chief, Fikile Mbalula, told local media on Thursday that the party would have tumbled to 40 per cent in this election if Mr. Ramaphosa had failed to win the party leadership in December of 2017.

Some independent analysts agreed. For the ANC under Mr. Ramaphosa, “this is a positive outcome,” said Susan Booysen, a political analyst who has published books on the inner workings of the ANC.

“It gives the ANC a second lease on life,” she told The Globe and Mail. “Without Ramaphosa, this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Leaders of the Zuma faction will continue to feud with Mr. Ramaphosa’s faction, Ms. Booysen predicted. “I won’t be surprised if they regroup and make another grab for power. They haven’t been subdued and they won’t be deterred. The ANC remains two parties that are very competitive against each other.”

Mr. Ramaphosa can also take solace from two other election results. With most votes counted, the ANC is still clinging to a majority in South Africa’s economic heartland, Gauteng province, where some polls had warned that the ANC could lose control. And the national results also showed that the biggest opposition party, the liberal Democratic Alliance, had failed to make any gains in this election. The DA won only about 22 per cent of the vote in this election – similar to its result in the 2014 election.

The third-biggest party, the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters party, captured about 10 per cent of the vote in the election, up from 6 per cent in the last election but still below its targets.

Rather than switching to the opposition parties, many South Africans did not vote at all. Voter turnout was reported to be about 65 per cent of registered voters – down sharply from 73 per cent five years ago.

And even before this election, only about 75 per cent of eligible voters had registered to vote – the lowest percentage since apartheid. Younger people, in particular, have abandoned the system, with only 19 per cent of the youngest eligible voters (18 and 19 years old) registering to vote this time, a much smaller percentage than in previous elections.

While the biggest parties failed to make gains, many South Africans opted instead to vote for smaller and newer parties. “There’s a lot of disenchantment, and we see it in the votes going to these strange little unknown parties,” Ms. Booysen said.

Analysts say the disillusionment with politics is a sign of growing unhappiness with the slumping economy and the proliferating corruption scandals, coupled with a lack of confidence in the two main opposition parties. Many South Africans see the Democratic Alliance as a white-dominated party, while the EFF is seen as too radical and divisive.

South Africa’s economy has repeatedly slipped into recession in recent years, annual growth has remained below 2 per cent for the past several years, and the unemployment rate continues to be stubbornly high.

The EFF has called for the seizure of all white-owned farmland to help reduce the persistently high rates of inequality and poverty in South Africa. The ANC has criticized the EFF proposal, but it has supported a plan to amend the constitution to authorize the seizure of land without compensation in some circumstances.

Mr. Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman and former union leader, is more popular than his party. But his supporters are fighting an internal feud with Mr. Zuma’s faction, which has remained heavily influential in the ANC. There have been reports that Mr. Zuma has supported several smaller parties – including a new church-backed party – in a behind-the-scenes attempt to erode the ANC’s margin of victory.

Despite Mr. Ramaphosa’s early attempts to clean up the most graft-ridden elements in his party, many voters were angered that the ANC refused to get rid of several cabinet ministers and top officials who have been linked to corruption. They remained on the ANC’s list for parliamentary seats, provoking a storm of criticism in the country.

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