South African President Cyril Ramaphosa leads ruling African National Congress to victory but a drop in its share of the vote underlines the challenge he faces restoring confidence in his party.
South Africa's ruling ANC geared on Saturday for its sixth straight term in power in the post-apartheid era but its worst ever electoral showing could hamper efforts to revive the flagging economy and fight graft.
Provisional results, due to be confirmed later Saturday, show that voters on Wednesday gave the ANC its smallest mandate since 1994, when Nelson Mandela led it to victory in the first multi-racial polls.
The party has been battling corruption scandals, sluggish economic growth and record unemployment – all issues its new leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to tackle.
Businessman Ramaphosa, 66, took over last year when the ANC compelled then-president Jacob Zuma to resign after nine years dominated by graft allegations and economic decline.
Official results showed the African National Congress (ANC) holding a comfortable lead with 57.5 percent – a huge dip from almost 70 percent in 2004 and 62 percent in 2014.
Its closest rival, the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), trailed at a distant 20.78 percent.
The radical left Economic Freedom Fighters, founded six years ago by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, was in third place with 10.79 percent – up four percentage points on 2014.
Seats in parliament are allocated based on vote share and the party with the most representatives selects the president, who will be sworn in on May 25.
The electoral commission is due to officially declare the results around 1600 GMT.
Despite the plunge in support, ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte told AFP news agency that "we are very happy with the results as they are."
'A period of hope'?
"The ANC are being given a chance," said political analyst Lumkile Mondi.
"This is an opportunity for them to reincarnate themselves."
Ramaphosa has faced resistance to his reform agenda, especially from Zuma allies who still occupy high-ranking positions in the party and government.
The ANC's reputation was badly sullied under Zuma.
Its support has fallen in every election since 2004 with the party taking 54 percent in municipal polls in 2016 in which it lost control of key city governments.
Forty-eight parties contested on Wednesday's elections – a record number.
Asked if Ramaphosa's reputation had saved the ANC from defeat, party secretary general Ace Magashule insisted "people have voted the ANC, they haven't voted for any person".
Analyst Susan Booysen of the Wits School of governance, however, said the tally was "way higher for the ANC than it would have been had Zuma been still in power".
A reduced majority nevertheless weakens Ramaphosa's bargaining power, making him more vulnerable to the pro-Zuma faction in the governing party, analysts warn.
South Africa's economy grew just 0.8 percent in 2018 and official unemployment hovers around 27 percent – soaring to over 50 percent among young people.
About 26.8 million people were registered to vote Wednesday, of whom 65 percent turned out.
Mandla Booi, 45, a voter in Port Elizabeth on the south coast, said "the ANC has taken people for granted".
"There is some arrogance which has crept in."
'Era of political realignment'
In trying to cash in on lost ANC support, the DA had sought to shed its image as a largely white, middle-class party with its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, contesting his first general election since taking the helm in 2015.
"Even though we've lost some votes, we've held the centre – and I will lead that project going forward," he said after the poll.
Malema's EFF made major gains, growing from 6.3 percent in the 2014 poll. The party's campaigned on promises to seize land from whites without compensation to give to poor blacks, and to nationalise mines and banks.
"It’s the last election that it [ANC] will win outright. We have now created the biggest decline for the ANC," said EFF chairman Dali Mpofu.
"In the next election there will not be any outright winner. We are going to enter the era of coalitions... an era of political realignment."
The conservative and predominantly white Freedom Front Plus, founded in 1994 during the negotiations to end apartheid, performed unexpectedly well as the fifth-placed party, up from number seven.