The African National Congress was heading for a crushing victory last night in South Africa's third election since the end of apartheid 10 years ago. With 62 per cent of polling stations declared, President Thabo Mbeki's party had 70 per cent support, seven points more than the liberation hero Nelson Mandela scored in the 1994 election.
Tony Leon's white-led Democratic Alliance (DA) was a distant second with 14 per cent of votes, although the provisional tally suggested a leap in support since the 1999 election.
The widely predicted landslide confirmed the ANC's towering popularity despite swelling discontent over deepening poverty, violent crime and the HIV/Aids pandemic. The former apartheid rulers in the New National Party saw their vote plummet from 7 per cent to less than 2 two per cent.
Smuts Ngonyama, an ANC spokesman, said: "The hurricane is beginning to blow. It's blowing in our favour." Black voters remain grateful to the party for delivering the country from racist white rule, and since 1994 the government has provided millions with water, housing and electricity.
With most outstanding results due from rural areas, the party's final tally could rise further. "You can't argue with the clarity of their mandate," said Richard Calland, an analyst with the Institute for Democracy, a local think-tank.
Mr Leon's DA party said the ANC's unchallenged dominance could be leading South Africa towards a de facto one-party state. A two-thirds majority allows the ANC to alter the constitution at will. Mr Mbeki derides the threat as fictional, pointing to safeguards in the strong judiciary and vigorous press.
Voter turnout slipped from 89 per cent in 1999 to about 76 per cent, reflecting disenchantment among poor blacks and coloureds who have yet to benefit from liberation. Despite steady economic growth since 1994, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 42 per cent.
The turnout still, however, confirmed South Africa's place among the world's strongest democracies, shaming most western countries. Just 51 per cent of voters participated in the most recent US presidential election; turnout at European elections is often barely higher.
None of the 21 opposition parties managed to seriously chip the ANC's countrywide support base. Contenders ranged from the right-wing white Afrikaner Freedom Front Plus to radical black socialist parties. The smallest party, Kiss (Keep It Straight and Simple), attracted 3,500 votes.
Feared upheaval in KwaZulu-Natal province, the ANC's main electoral challenge, largely failed to materialise. An estimated 20,000 people died in the province in 1994 during clashes between ANC supporters and rivals from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
Tensions remain high. Yesterday 240 soldiers were sent to Nongoma and Ulundi to rescue 30 ANC polling agents who said their lives were threatened by IFP gangs. A DA politician was shot in the leg in Durban on Tuesday in what the party termed an "assassination attempt".
With results suggesting the IFP vote had halved to 5 per cent, party officials claimed ANC-biased officials had rigged the vote. "It may well be that we would not accept the election results if we believe electoral fraud and cheating have [undermined] the process," its spokesman, Musa Zondi, said.
But many votes from the province, South Africa's most populous, have yet to be tallied. Although a distant second, the DA increased its vote by 50 per cent over 1999, suggesting it has succeeded in attracting some disgruntled blacks, something analysts say is crucial to building a proper opposition.
Analysts said, however, that the DA would have to re-examine its image, particularly the abrasive style of Mr Leon, which grates with many blacks, who have bitter memories of white rule. Protas Madlala, an independent analyst, said: "They can be too aggressive and some people react very emotionally to Leon. They say: 'Who is this white man who is speaking so badly about our President?'"
The virtual collapse of the New National Party, led by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, sneeringly referred to as "short pants", exceeded the worst predictions. Its slender support may, however, be enough to assure it a place in an ANC-led coalition government in its Western Cape heartland.
Patricia de Lille, the firebrand leader of the Independent Democrats, touted as a growing opposition force, garnered 2 per cent of the vote. Ms de Lille regularly targets government policies with coruscating comments and publicity stunts that have embarrassed Mr Mbeki.
Analysts say she must now translate soundbites into action. "She has done extremely well for such a young party," Mr Calland said. "But now she must show she can deliver."