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A woman casts her vote for the general elections at the Presbyterian Church ballot station in Dobsonville, Johannesburg, on May 8, 2019.


The long-ruling African National Congress has taken an early lead in South Africa’s national elections, as President Cyril Ramaphosa seeks a stronger mandate for an anti-corruption campaign after years of embarrassing scandals under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, millions of South Africans voted Wednesday in an election that could determine the fate of Mr. Ramaphosa’s efforts to push out the Zuma faction and gain greater control of his divided party.

The ANC, the former liberation movement that has governed the country since the first democratic election in 1994, is almost certain to win. But its margin of victory will help decide whether Mr. Ramaphosa can move ahead with his much-touted efforts to tackle the corruption scandals that grew dramatically worse under Mr. Zuma.

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The early results on Wednesday showed that the ANC had won about 52 per cent of the votes counted. The biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, had gained about 29 per cent of the votes. But less than 11 per cent of voting districts had reported their results in the early tally, and most of the districts were in regions where the ANC is traditionally weaker than it is nationally.

Electoral commission agents count votes in Johannesburg.

The Associated Press

Opinion polls in the final days of the campaign have suggested the ANC will get between 53 per cent and 62 per cent of the vote. Its support fell to 62 per cent from 66 per cent in the previous election, in 2014, and most analysts are expecting a further decline this time.

Mr. Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman and former union leader, is more popular than his party. But his supporters are fighting an internal feud with supporters of Mr. Zuma, who resigned last year after years of corruption allegations.

If the ANC wins a clear victory, it could strengthen Mr. Ramaphosa’s hand in the factional battles, allowing him to push ahead with his anti-corruption campaign. It would also boost South Africa’s stock market and currency, since investors see Mr. Ramaphosa as a market-friendly leader of the ANC’s liberal faction.

But the Zuma faction has remained heavily influential in the party, and there are reports that Mr. Zuma has unofficially supported several smaller parties – including a new church-backed party – that could erode the ANC’s margin of victory. A slippage in ANC support could open the door for Mr. Zuma to regain influence in the party and government.

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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 party’s list for parliamentary seats, provoking a storm of criticism in the country.

Millions of South Africans, disenchanted by years of economic stagnation and scandals, have not bothered to register as voters. The economy has repeatedly slipped into recession in recent years, growth has remained slow and the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly high.

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Only about 75 per cent of eligible voters have registered to vote in this election – the lowest percentage since apartheid. Younger people, in particular, have abandoned the electoral 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.

African National Congress supporters celebrate outside a voting station in Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town, on May 8, 2019.

Halden Krog/The Associated Press

One of the main beneficiaries of the growing disenchantment with the ANC is a relatively new party, the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters. Polls suggest it could increase its share of the vote to about 11 per cent this time, compared with 6 per cent in the previous election.

The EFF, headed by a former ANC youth leader, is campaigning for the seizure of white-owned farmland. It has helped push the ANC to promise faster action in support of land redistribution. The ANC has introduced a plan to amend the constitution to allow the government to take possession of farmland without compensation.

The Democratic Alliance has failed to capitalize on disillusionment with the ANC. Some pollsters suggest it might make a marginal improvement on the 22 per cent it gained in the previous national election, but others predict it could slip below 20 per cent.

While there is little doubt of an ANC victory at the national level, the governing party is at risk of losing control of South Africa’s economic heartland, the province of Gauteng, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located. Some analysts believe its support could fall below 50 per cent there, opening the door for a possible coalition government among the opposition parties.

The ANC has already lost control of Johannesburg and Pretoria, where the opposition parties were able to forge coalitions after the previous local elections, in 2016.

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