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(photo credit: AP)
Jacob Zuma's supporters danced and sang in the streets Thursday in celebration as partial results from South Africa's parliamentary elections showed him in line to become the country's next president.
Zuma's warmth and rise from poverty to political prominence have drawn adoring crowds throughout the election campaign, although critics question whether he can implement his populist agenda amid the global economic meltdown.
Preliminary results from the 7.75 million ballots counted so far Thursday showed Zuma's African National Congress party leading the vote with just over 66 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.
A record 23 million South Africans registered to vote. A 77 percent turnout has been recorded at those polling stations where counting has finished. Polling officials estimated a final turnout of about 80 percent. Final results are expected late Thursday or possibly Friday.
Several thousand of Zuma's supporters, though, were not waiting to begin the celebrations, gathering in a square in downtown Johannesburg late Thursday afternoon where Zuma was to address the crowd later. People were dancing, singing, and breaking out the noisemakers and barbecues.
Te Ngubane, 52, a clerk at a police station, said she felt South Africa's previous government hadn't listened to people like her.
"We trust Zuma because he is straight. He doesn't go like this," she said rolling her hand in front of her chest as if it were a snake.
The ANC views Zuma as the first leader who can energize voters since the legendary Nelson Mandela. But others say Zuma is too beholden to unions and leftists, and will not be able to fulfill his promises of creating jobs and a stronger social safety net. At the end of the campaign, Zuma was talking not about creating jobs, but staving off job losses.
"We are expecting a lot - many houses, schools, jobs," said Precious Mosiane, 25, who is unemployed and looking for work. "We are aware that the economy is in trouble but we are going to make sure" the government fulfills its promises.
The ANC has swept every poll since the first post-apartheid election in 1994. In 2004, the ANC won 69.69 percent of the vote.
Though victory was expected for the ANC, the party has been less sure of whether it can hold onto its two-thirds majority in what has become South Africa's most contested election since the country's first multiracial vote in 1994. 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 the preliminary count, had about 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 about 8 percent in preliminary results, despite expectations at one point that it would pose a serious challenge to the ruling party.
Turnout was heavy, and some stations had temporary ballot shortages or struggled because ballot boxes filled so quickly.
The Democratic Alliance looked set to win the Western Cape - the heart of South Africa's wine, fruit and tourism industries.
Opposition leader Helen Zille, who has won praises as the mayor of Cape Town, had courted mixed race voters, who account for more than half the population in the province but only a small minority nationwide. Her strategy apparently paid off.
The ANC has never had a solid base in the province, and won it in the last elections by a narrow majority thanks to the collapse of the New National Party, which had traditionally enjoyed strong local support. But since 2004, the local ANC has been consumed by infighting and power struggles. Zille had said her key target was to win the Western Cape and break the ANC's stranglehold on power.
Zuma, 67, was fired by Mbeki as deputy president in 2005 after he was implicated in an arms deal bribery scandal. After a series of protracted legal battles, prosecutors dropped all charges against him earlier this month, saying the case had been manipulated for political reasons and the criminal charges would never be revived. But they said they still believed they had a strong case against Zuma.
In 2006, the former guerrilla leader was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend. But he has been ridiculed for his testimony during the trial that he believed showering after the encounter, which he said was consensual, would protect him from AIDS.
Zuma joined the ANC in 1959 and by 21 he was arrested while trying to leave the country illegally. He was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. In prison, Zuma resumed his schooling and began making a name for himself among ANC prisoners.
He left South Africa in 1975 for 15 years of exile in neighboring Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia, where he was appointed chief of the ANC's intelligence department. Following the lifting of the ANC ban in 1990, Zuma was one of the first of the group's leaders to return to South Africa.