South Africa's long-dominant governing party had a commanding lead across the country Friday as vote counting neared completion, closing in on its goal of winning at least a two-thirds majority of parliament.
But the African National Congress was poised to lose control of the provincial legislature in the Western Cape, the heart of South Africa's wine, fruit and tourism industries. Hostility toward the ANC from that province's mixed-race voters was a reminder that the racial divides of apartheid are not entirely healed.
Final results were expected later Friday or early Saturday. Preliminary results from the nearly 14.5 million ballots counted so far from Wednesday's election showed that Jacob Zuma's African National Congress party was leading the vote with 66.91 percent.
Parliament elects South Africa's president by a simple majority, putting Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.
The largely white opposition Democratic Alliance, according to the preliminary count, had 15.62 percent. The Congress of the People — formed by a breakaway faction of the ANC last year — was trailing with 7.53 percent.
Results also showed the Democratic Alliance close to gaining an outright majority in the Western Cape.
The Democratic Alliance had courted mixed race people, who make up about half the Western Cape's population. Blacks are about 30 percent and whites are 18 percent. This is in contrast to the national picture, where blacks account for 80 percent of the population and mixed race and whites each for 9 percent.
Mixed race people — many of whom trace their ancestry back to Malay slaves — enjoyed more rights than blacks under apartheid's racist rules, and emerged skeptical of the ANC, which they see as a black party. The ANC, though, has support from some mixed race South Africans and whites across South Africa, and politicians from both groups have prominent roles in the party.
The ANC swept South Africa's first post-apartheid election in 1994 and the two following that. In 2004, it took 69.69 percent of the parliamentary vote. If the ANC fails to at least match that this year, it will be seen as a message from voters that they want 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.
On Thursday night, Zuma, ANC leaders and supporters danced and drank champagne in downtown Johannesburg outside party headquarters. The ANC leader said he was just thanking campaign workers, but it looked very much like a victory celebration.
With relish, Zuma told several thousand supporters that skeptics who had said the ANC wouldn't get 60 percent of the parliamentary vote now "are saying 70."
The opposition COPE party, formed last year by disgruntled former ANC members, had at first been seen as a major threat to the governing party. Instead, it seems to have drawn most of its support from smaller parties.
Patricia De Lille's Independent Democrats got 1.73 percent of the vote in 2001 but only had 0.91 percent Friday. In response, De Lille called for "like-minded" opposition parties to unite and redefine the country's political structure.
Sipho Ngwema, a COPE spokesman, said the party would consider working with De Lille's and other parties — but not the ANC, which COPE has accused of being undemocratic and soft on corruption under Zuma.
"A well-coordinated (opposition coalition) speaking in a united voice will get bigger returns for our people," Ngwema admitted.
A record 23 million South Africans registered to vote, and long lines snaked around the country Wednesday as voters went to the polls. A 77 percent turnout has been recorded at polling stations where counting has finished.
With his all-but-official victory, Zuma takes on a heavy responsibility — meeting expectations for change among the impoverished black majority.
But the mood was light Thursday night, and an ebullient 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. The ANC views Zuma as the first leader who can energize voters since the legendary Nelson Mandela, and Zuma has survived corruption and sex scandals that would have derailed a less wily populist.
Critics, though, question whether he can implement his populist agenda amid the global economic meltdown.
The ANC has been accused of moving too slowly over the last 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, Zuma was talking not about creating jobs, but staving off job losses, and saying the worldwide financial meltdown had to be taken into account.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.