The African National Congress (ANC) was headed toward victory in South Africa’s election on Friday according to partial early results, though the party was on course for its worst performance in a national poll in its 25 years in government.

As of 2 a.m. local time, ballots in 72 per cent of 22,925 voting districts had been counted. The tallies put the ANC at 57 per cent in the parliamentary race, with the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) at 22 per cent and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) at 10 per cent.

The former liberation party of Nelson Mandela has not won less than a 60 per cent share of the vote since it swept to power in South Africa’s first all-race election in 1994, marking the end of white minority rule.

Based on the latest results from the Electoral Commission, analysts predicted the ANC was set for a vote share of between 55 and 59 per cent. A poor showing for the ANC would embolden opponents of President Cyril Ramaphosa and risk a potential challenge to his leadership, analysts have said.

In the first national test at the ballot box for Ramaphosa, South Africans voted on Wednesday for a new parliament and nine provincial legislatures. They had expressed frustration at rampant corruption, high unemployment and racial inequalities that remain deeply entrenched.

Ramaphosa is trying to stop  a slide in support for Africa’s oldest liberation movement, whose tenure in the last decade was punctuated by corruption scandals, a stagnant economy and high unemployment. “People have shown they are willing to forgive the ANC,” said Ronald Lamola, a member of the ANC’s top governing body. “We are looking at a clear mandate for our policies.”

An electoral worker empties a ballot box for counting in view of party agents after the close of polls May 8. (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

With promises to fight corruption, improve public services and put people into jobs, Ramaphosa won an internal party leadership election in December 2017, narrowly defeating a faction allied with former head of state Jacob Zuma. Ramaphosa replaced the scandal-plagued Zuma as president of Africa’s most advanced economy three months later.

But his efforts have been constrained by divisions within his own party, where some Zuma supporters still retain influence and oppose his agenda.

The ANC achieved its best parliamentary election result in 2004 under former president Thabo Mbeki, when it won more than 69 per cent of the vote. But its support fell under Zuma, and it lost control of big cities like Johannesburg, the commercial capital, in local government elections in 2016.

Voter apathy appeared to have affected turnout, which fell to 65 per cent from 74 per cent in 2014. 

Election officials said voting in general had progressed smoothly but that there had been isolated disruptions caused by bad weather, unscheduled power outages or community protests.

Voter turnout fell to about 64 per cent, down from 74 per cent in 2014. (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)