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Jacob Zuma, former president of South Africa, addresses his supporters outside the high court in Durban, on April 6, 2018.ROGAN WARD/Reuters

A new political party led by former president Jacob Zuma has grabbed the spotlight in South Africa with radical promises of land redistribution, mandatory military service, legalization of corporal punishment and the exiling of pregnant teenagers to compulsory schooling at the former apartheid prison of Robben Island.

Mr. Zuma’s manifesto has been widely criticized and even ridiculed, but opinion polls and by-election results suggest that he could inflict heavy damage on the ruling African National Congress in the May 29 election.

His party is the latest wild card in an election that is shaping up as the most unpredictable in South Africa’s post-apartheid history. If the ANC falls below the 50-per-cent mark for the first time in three decades, President Cyril Ramaphosa will probably be obliged to resign, analysts say.

After serving as president for nine years, Mr. Zuma was forced to step down in 2018 under a cloud of corruption accusations and was later briefly jailed for refusing to testify at an inquiry into the allegations. He shocked the ANC by defecting to the new party in December, accusing Mr. Ramaphosa of being “a proxy of white monopoly capital” – a reference to white-owned businesses.

The ANC responded by suspending Mr. Zuma’s membership in the ruling party, denouncing him as “the figurehead of counter-revolution in South Africa today.”

Mr. Zuma’s new party, MK, is named after the ANC’s former paramilitary wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), and he has vowed to launch a “new people’s war” to end the power of white capitalism, using ballots instead of bullets. The ANC has gone to court to challenge his use of the MK name.

Senior figures in the party, including Mr. Zuma himself, are strongly pro-Russia. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Zuma praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a man of peace” who was bringing stability to the world. He travelled to Moscow last year, saying that he was receiving medical treatment there.

His new party has surprised some pundits by capturing a significant share of the vote in three by-elections so far. The party took 19 per cent and 28 per cent of the vote in two by-elections in early February in Mr. Zuma’s stronghold, KwaZulu-Natal province, and then won 28 per cent this week in a by-election in Mpumalanga province.

“The People’s Movement, which was just unveiled two months ago, is a FORCE!” the party said in a social-media post on Thursday after the latest by-election.

A survey of 820 registered voters in KwaZulu-Natal, conducted in February by the independent Social Research Foundation, found that 27 per cent supported Mr. Zuma’s party, compared with just 17 per cent who favoured the ANC. The polling results are important because the province is traditionally a major vote producer for the ANC and is crucial to its national election prospects.

The poll suggests that Mr. Zuma’s party has the potential to become the leading party in KwaZulu-Natal, which could reduce the ANC’s national vote by five percentage points, the Social Research Foundation said in its analysis of the data.

Mr. Zuma is one of several emerging threats to the ANC’s traditional dominance of South African politics. The ruling party could be replaced by new coalition governments in major provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the economic heartland of the country, polls show.

The ANC has won comfortable majorities in every election since the end of white minority rule in 1994, but its popularity is eroding steadily as the South African economy stagnates, unemployment rises, inequality persists and corruption scandals continue.

Its electoral supremacy will be seriously challenged this year by a crowded field of opposition parties. Some polls show significant growth by the second-biggest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which has unofficial links to Mr. Zuma. The EFF is a radical left-wing populist party, vowing to expropriate white-owned land without compensation and to nationalize banks, mines and other industries.

After winning just 6 per cent of the vote in its first election in 2014, the EFF climbed to 11 per cent in 2019, and some polls have put it close to 20 per cent this year. If the ANC falls below 50 per cent of the vote in May, the EFF could gain power in a national coalition government, which would almost certainly push the government’s economic policies further to the left.

Other new or emerging parties are exploiting the anti-immigration mood among many South Africans, who accuse African migrants of taking jobs and housing. One party, the Patriotic Alliance, has vowed to launch mass deportations of foreigners. It has already won a slice of power in several towns and cities across the country.

The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has formed a new alliance with several other parties in a bid to replace the ANC in at least two provinces after the election.

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