South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's ruling ANC was in touching distance of election victory Friday but with diminished support, complicating efforts to revive the country's flagging economy and fight corruption, results showed.
The African National Congress (ANC), in power since 1994, held a very comfortable lead with nearly 57 percent after three-quarters of voting districts were officially tallied following Wednesday's vote.
But the result would be the party's worst national showing since Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the first multi-racial polls after apartheid ended in 1994.
Ramaphosa, 66, took over last year when the party forced then-president Jacob Zuma to resign after nine years dominated by corruption allegations and economic problems.
He was expected to visit the Electoral Commission (IEC) results operation centre in Pretoria at 0800 GMT.
"We're going to be the government, whether there is decline or increase," said the ANC's chairman Gwede Mantashe late on Thursday.
Results released by the IEC showed the ANC's closest rival, the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) trailing with a distant 22 percent of the vote.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, founded six years ago by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, was in third place with almost 10 percent.
Final results are expected to be officially certified on Saturday.
A new projection by South Africa's respected Council for Scientific and Industrial Research forecast the ANC would win with 57 percent -- a five percentage point drop from the last election in 2014.
'Deepening of our democracy'
Jessie Duarte, the ANC deputy secretary-general, said the partial results were neither a "disappointment" nor a "surprise".
"What I think is important to recognise is the deepening of our democracy," she said at the IEC in Pretoria.
The party that wins the most seats in parliament selects the president, who will be sworn in on May 25.
"This is an election that will really offer the ANC a last chance to kickstart economic growth," said analyst Daniel Silke. "The pressure is really on Ramaphosa in the next five years."
Ramaphosa has so far faced resistance to his reform agenda, especially from Zuma's allies who still occupy several high-ranking positions in the party and government.
After casting his ballot on Wednesday, Ramaphosa said the election was "heralding a new dawn... a period of renewal, a period of hope".
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 2016 municipal elections, compared with 62 percent in 2014's national vote.
Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela and the ANC were swept to power with a landslide in the country's first multi-racial elections that marked the end of white minority rule in 1994.
Most opinion polls before the vote had suggested the ANC would secure nearly 60 percent of the vote because of Ramaphosa's appeal and a fractured opposition.
Forty-eight parties contested the elections -- a record number.
The conservative and predominantly white Freedom Front Plus party, founded in 1994 during the negotiations to end apartheid, was performing strongly as the fourth biggest party in the vote.
'The poor are getting poorer'
The ANC has been confronted by deepening public anger over its failure to tackle poverty and inequality in the post-apartheid era.
"We have given them 25 years but the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer," said voter Anmareth Preece, 28, a teacher. "We need a government that governs for the people, not for themselves."
The economy grew just 0.8 percent in 2018 and unemployment hovers around 27 percent -- soaring to over 50 percent among young people.
The main opposition DA is hoping to shed its image as a white, middle-class party with its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, contesting his first general election since taking the helm in 2015.
"Black South Africans have voted for the DA, white South Africans have voted for the DA. I'm quite content with where we are at the moment as a party," he told reporters at the results centre.
Malema's EFF is predicted to make major gains, growing from 6.3 percent to a forecast 11 percent.
"We got into the race for significant change," said EFF secretary general Godrich Gardee.
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."
About 26.8 million people were registered to vote but only an estimated 65 percent did so.
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