(Bloomberg) -- South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s bid to consolidate his grip on power and revive the flagging economy in the aftermath of Jacob Zuma’s scandal-marred rule faces a critical test in the nation’s sixth post-apartheid national election.
While opinion polls point to the ruling African National Congress extending its quarter-century monopoly on power in Wednesday’s vote, Ramaphosa needs a decisive win to quell opposition in his faction-riven party to push through reforms needed to spur growth in Africa’s most-industrialized economy. A narrow victory could embolden his critics and may force the party into coalitions to retain control of some provinces, limiting his policy options.
“The margin is extremely important,” said Melanie Verwoerd, an independent analyst and former ANC lawmaker. “It will be significantly more dangerous and difficult for Ramaphosa to deal with his detractors within the ANC should the result fall below 55 percent. Anything above 57 percent would make it increasingly difficult for his detractors to act against him.”
Voting for the 400-member National Assembly and nine provincial legislatures is due to run from 7 a.m. local time to 9 p.m. Final results are scheduled to be released by May 11, and a first meeting of the new parliament has been provisionally set for May 22. The president is officially elected at that sitting.
The ANC’s share of the vote plummeted to 54.5 percent in a 2016 municipal vote, from 62.2 percent in national elections two years earlier, as its supporters shied away from the ballot amid allegations of graft and misrule under Zuma.
The ANC forced Zuma to quit in February last year and replaced him with Ramaphosa, who had won the party leadership two months earlier by a razor-thin margin. Zuma allies secured a number of top party posts, and there is speculation they may seek to topple the president at the ANC’s next national conference in 2022.
Also at stake in this election is the ANC’s majority in the province of Gauteng, which includes the capital, Pretoria, and the economic hub of Johannesburg. The ruling party lost control of both cities in the 2016 municipal election, with the Democratic Alliance taking control with support from smaller parties.
Since taking office, Ramaphosa has sought to clamp down on corruption, spearheaded a drive to lure $100 billion in new investment and appointed new managers to oversee several mismanaged government institutions and companies.
Surveys show the 66-year-old leader is way more popular than his party and his main rivals, with one recent poll by research company Ipsos putting his approval rating at 65 percent.
“We started deviating from the mandate that our people gave us -- corruption got into the way, patronage got into the way,” Ramaphosa said after voting in Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg. “We now know our mistakes, and we are sorry about the mistakes we have made.”
The ANC’s main challengers among 48 parties contesting the national vote are Mmusi Maimane’s center-right DA and the populist Economic Freedom Fighters, led by former ANC youth wing leader Julius Malema.
“It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s not a marriage, it’s a contract -- let’s ensure we have jobs, let’s make sure we can root out corruption,” Maimane said after casting his ballot in the Dobsonville area of Soweto.
(Updates with Ramaphosa’s comment in 10th paragraph.)
--With assistance from Ana Monteiro and Mike Cohen.
To contact the reporters on this story: Amogelang Mbatha in Johannesburg at firstname.lastname@example.org;Paul Vecchiatto in Cape Town at email@example.com
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