Zuma closing in on South African election victory

South Africa's long-dominant governing party was leaving its opponents in national elections far behind today, and the only matter to be decided was the margin of victory.

If Jacob Zuma's African National Congress fails to achieve the almost 70% that it took in 2004, it will be seen as a message from voters that they want to see some limits on the party.

A two-thirds majority allows the ANC to enact major budgetary plans or legislation unchallenged, or to change the constitution.

The ANC swept the first post-apartheid election in 1994 and both those that followed.

As of late yesterday, preliminary results from the 10.09 million ballots counted so far from Wednesday's election showed the ANC with 66.70% of the vote.

Parliament elects South Africa's president by a simple majority, putting Mr Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.

Mr Zuma told several thousand supporters gathered on a blocked-off street outside his party's downtown Johannesburg headquarters yesterday that sceptics who had said the ANC wouldn't get 60% of the parliamentary vote now "are saying 70".

The largely white opposition Democratic Alliance had 16.16%, according to the preliminary count. The Congress of the People - formed by a breakaway faction of the ANC last year - was trailing with 7.75%.

A record 23 million South Africans registered to vote. A 77% turnout has been recorded at those polling stations where counting has finished. Final results were expected today.

But yesterday night, ANC leaders and supporters danced and drank champagne in downtown Johannesburg. Mr Zuma said he was just thanking campaign workers, but it looked very much like a celebration.

With the all-but-official victory, Mr Zuma takes on a heavy responsibility - meeting expectations for change among the impoverished black majority.

But the mood was light yesterday, and an ebullient Mr Zuma drew wild cheers as he leapt high with one troupe of dancers and boogied with another with an energy belying his 67 years.

That ability to connect, and his rise from poverty to political prominence, have drawn adoring crowds throughout the election campaign. Critics, though, question whether he can implement his populist agenda amid the global economic meltdown.

The ANC views Mr Zuma as the first leader who can energise voters since Nelson Mandela.

The party has been accused of moving too slowly over the past 15 years to improve the lives of South Africa's black majority.

During this campaign, the ANC has stressed its commitment to creating jobs and a stronger social safety net for this nation of nearly 50 million, which is plagued by poverty, unemployment and an Aids epidemic.

Toward the end of the campaign, Mr Zuma was talking not about creating jobs, but staving off job losses, and saying the worldwide financial meltdown had to be taken into account.

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