South Africa's ruling ANC party on Tuesday looked set to deliver its worst ever electoral performance since the end of apartheid, with support expected to dip below 50 percent in local government polls.
With more than 50 percent of polling stations reporting following Monday's fiercely contested elections, the African National Congress stood at slightly under 46 percent of the vote, according to electoral commission figures.
Voters were called to elect local representatives responsible for hot-button issues including electricity, housing, water and sanitation.
Poor service delivery has dogged South Africa for years while senior A NC party members, including former president Jacob Zuma, face corruption investigations. Meanwhile unemployment has hit 34.4 percent.
Frustrations with the ANC government played out in July when widespread rioting and looting erupted following Zuma's imprisonment for contempt after refusing to testify in a corruption investigation. The unrest claimed at least 354 lives.
Until 2016, the ANC had won more than 60 percent at every election since the country's first multi-racial vote in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president.
The party's support slipped from 62 percent in the 2011 municipal elections to 54 percent during the 2016 vote.
- 'Not ideal': ANC -
"The national picture is that we see the ANC dropping from their 2016 performance of 54.1 percent to 46.8 percent," Xolisa Ngwadla, statistics analyst with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), told AFP.
The ANC has accepted its fate, blaming the poor showing on the coronavirus pandemic, apathy and electricity blackouts imposed by the country's energy utility Eskom.
"I don't think we could have done better," ANC's deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte told AFP.
"It's of course not ideal to be under 50 percent, we are hoping that we will edge more towards 50 percent but we will live with whatever is the outcome, that's democracy," she said.
"We believe that some of our own voters stayed away from the polls but... we are not looking at this as a great tragedy, we are looking at this as an opportunity to improve."
Analysts are not surprised at the ANC's showing. Former liberation movements, such as ANC which spearheaded the fight against apartheid, have a shelf life.
"Normally after about three decades, (ex-liberation movements) lose their dominance, we are around there with the ANC," now in power 27 years, said William Gumede of the Democracy Works think tank.
- 'Collapse below 50%' -
The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, also looked set to lose support, the partial electoral commission figures showing them receiving 22.7 percent, down from 29.9 percent in 2016.
DA leader John Steenhuisen said that "the takeaway" from the election "is the collapse of the ANC below 50 percent".
"It does show is we can bring them below 50 percent, an energised opposition can make inroads...(we must) use this as an opportunity to build momentum going into the next election," he said from the results centre in Pretoria.
Contesting its second municipal elections, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters received 9.88 percent of the partial vote result, up from 7.1 percent in the previous elections.
In 2016 the ANC lost control for the first time of the country's economic hub and its largest city Johannesburg, as it did the capital Pretoria and the southern city of Port Elizabeth, now renamed Gqeberha.
The losing streak has continued, with the ANC's support forecast to erode further in Johannesburg from the 44.7 percent it garnered in the previous vote to 36.3 percent.
In the Pretoria capital region, "we project the ANC to land at around 34 percent, which is a decline from a previous 38.1 percent," CSIR's Ngwadla said.
Analyst Gumede said the ANC will soon become "a rural party, (and) that can be compared to the ZANU PF in Zimbabwe".
Turnout also dipped from a previous 57 percent to a low 48 percent of the qualified 26.2 million voters, according to the CSIR, a government research institution, whose prediction model typically has a 0.5 percent margin of error.
Final tabulations from the country's sixth municipal vote since the end of apartheid were expected Wednesday, while official results will be announced on Thursday.