South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's ruling ANC will retain its parliamentary majority after polls but with diminished support, complicating efforts to revive the embattled party and the country's flagging economy, results showed Thursday.
The African National Congress (ANC), in power since 1994, surged into the lead with nearly 57 percent after more than half the voting districts were officially tallied following Wednesday's vote.
Ramaphosa, 66, took over last year after the party forced then-president Jacob Zuma to resign after nine years dominated by corruption allegations and economic problems.
Results released by the Electoral Commission (IEC) show the ANC's closest rival, the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) trailing with a distant 22 percent.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, founded six years ago by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, was in third place with more than nine percent.
Electoral officials said at least 90 percent of the stations should have reported by the end of Thursday, and final results are expected to be officially certified on Saturday.
ANC would win
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.
Jessie Duarte, the ANC deputy secretary-general, said the provisional result was 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 country's 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 polls that marked the end of white minority rule in 1994.
Most opinion surveys 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 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.
Malema's EFF is predicted to make major gains, growing from 6.3 percent to a forecast 11 percent.
"The ANC has taken people for granted. There is some arrogance which has crept in," said voter Mandla Booi, 45, in Port Elizabeth on the south coast.
About 26.8 million voters were registered to cast their ballots but only an estimated 65 percent did so.