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The ANC maintained its vast lead as night fell on the first day of vote counting in South Africa's fourth democratic elections, paving the way for Jacob Zuma to become president.

The ANC maintained its vast lead as night fell on the first day of vote counting in South Africa's fourth democratic elections, paving the way for Jacob Zuma to become president.

With roughly a third of votes processed, the party was lying at 66,56percent - close to its stated aim of retaining the two-thirds majority that will allow it to change the Constitution.

Jubilant ANC supporters turned out in force in downtown Johannesburg for an early celebration with Zuma, who is set to become head of state just weeks after corruption charges against him were withdrawn.

The DA was soaring above its personal best of 12percent and entrenching its status as the official position with some 16percent of the vote by early evening.

DA leader Helen Zille could also be sanguine about her chances of becoming premier of the Western Cape.

The DA had so far secured 48,66percent of votes in the hotly contested province, while the ANC was lagging behind with 31,2percent. The four-month-old Cope was polling 9,27percent, followed by the Independent Democrats with 6,31percent.

Cope was in third place nationally, with just more than 630000 votes or 7,91percent.

Cope's presidential candidate Mvume Dandala joked that it was a fine performance for a cash-strapped young movement that became famous as "the party without posters".

"We are satisfied and feel very encouraged that as a young party we could actually be gunning for 600000 plus," he said.

Though it seemed that the splinter party had failed to live up to promises of proving a serious challenge to the ANC, Dandala felt Cope had put in a strong performance as it was the first time since 1994 that a new party had broken through the 6percent mark.

The elections seemed set to confirm the decline of the once powerful IFP, which has just 3,20percent of the vote at this stage.

The ID and the United Democratic tied at 1,19percent at 5pm. The ACDP had 0,75percent, the Freedom Front Plus 0,89percent.

With votes cast overseas last week finally counted, the DA had more to shout about. It won 7581 votes of the 9857 cast by expatriates, compared to Cope's 918 and the ANC's 673 votes.

IEC chief electoral officer Pansy Tlakula said the overseas voting process had been "fine".

Jacob Zuma's supporters danced and sang in the streets yesterday as partial election results showed him in line to become the 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 7,75million ballots counted so far yesterday showed Zuma's ANC party leading the vote. Parliament elects South Africa's president by a simple majority, putting him in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.

In a mock funeral service for opposition parties, ANC supporters carried makeshift caskets bearing the logos of opposition parties in the Johannesburg CBD on yesterday evening.

Hundreds of supporters in ANC T-shirts, sang struggle songs and blew vuvuzelas while waiting for Zuma to address them outside Luthuli House.

A record 23million South Africans registered to vote. Polling officials estimated a final turnout of about 80percent. Final results were expected late yesterday or possibly today.

The ANC has swept every poll since the first post-apartheid election in 1994. - AP and Sapa


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