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Originally published Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Party starts early on South Africa's vote

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.

The Associated Press

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 (ANC) chief Jacob Zuma said he was only thanking campaign workers, but the celebration left little doubt about his ascension to the presidency.

Zuma reminded several thousand supporters gathered outside his party's downtown Johannesburg headquarters that the tally was still going on.

But he noted that skeptics who had claimed his ANC party wouldn't get 60 percent of the parliamentary vote now "are saying 70."

With the all-but-official victory, 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 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 Zuma's rise from poverty to political prominence drew adoring crowds throughout the campaign. Critics, though, questioned whether he can implement his populist agenda amid the global economic meltdown.

There were calls throughout the rally for his signature song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," and Zuma obliged, but not before singing another apartheid-era song on prevailing against all odds.

Preliminary results from the million of ballots counted Thursday showed Zuma's ANC party leading the vote with 66.70 percent. Parliament elects South Africa's president by a simple majority, putting Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes next month.

A record 23 million South Africans registered to vote. A 77 percent turnout was recorded at those polling stations where counting has finished. Final results are expected by today.

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 (DA), 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.

DA leader Helen Zille had won praise as the mayor of Cape Town, the province's main city, and courted mixed-race voters. The province is the heart of South Africa's wine, fruit and tourism industries.

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

Early expectations it would pose a serious challenge to the governing party were dampened by internal leadership bickering and the lack of time to raise funds.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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