- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

JOHANNESBURG | South Africa’s governing party set off fireworks and popped fizzy bottles of champagne Thursday as ballots were counted in the country’s latest election. African National Congress chief Jacob Zuma said he was only thanking campaign workers - but the celebration left little doubt about his ascension to the presidency.

Mr. Zuma reminded several thousand supporters gathered outside his party’s downtown headquarters that the tally was still going on - a technical point that hardly affected the party mood.

But he noted with relish that skeptics who had claimed his party wouldn’t get 60 percent of the parliamentary vote now “are saying 70” percent.

With the all-but-official victory, Mr. Zuma takes on a heavy responsibility - meeting expectations for change among South Africa’s impoverished black majority. But that was for another day - an ebullient Mr. Zuma drew wild cheers as he leapt high with one troupe of dancers and boogied with another with an energy that belied his 67 years.

That ability to connect and Mr. Zuma’s 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.

Preliminary results from the 10.09 million ballots counted so far Thursday showed Mr. Zuma’s ANC party leading the vote with 66.7 percent. 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.

A record 23 million South Africans registered to vote. A 77 percent turnout has been recorded at those polling stations where counting has finished. Final results were expected late Thursday or Friday.

The ANC needs to keep its two-thirds majority to enact major budgetary plans or legislation unchallenged, or to change the constitution.

The largely white opposition Democratic Alliance, according to Thursday’s preliminary count, had 16.16 percent. It was expected to take South Africa’s richest province, the Western Cape, from the ANC.

The Congress of the People - formed by a breakaway faction of the ANC last year - was trailing with 7.75 percent in preliminary results.

In 2005, Mr. Zuma was fired as deputy president by President Thabo Mbeki after Mr. Zuma was implicated in an arms bribery scandal. After protracted legal battles, prosecutors dropped all charges against him earlier this month. In 2006, the former guerrilla leader was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend.

Mr. Zuma defeated Mr. Mbeki in an ANC leadership race in 2007. The ANC then fired Mr. Mbeki as the nation’s president and installed Kgalema Motlanthe as a caretaker president until Mr. Zuma could take over.

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