South Africa's opposition parties make a final call for historic change the day before election

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South African opposition parties made a final appeal to voters Tuesday as the country faces the possibility of a landmark change in its young democracy.

At the heart of Wednesday's national election is the question of whether South Africans will deliver their biggest rejection yet of the ruling African National Congress party, which has governed since the end of the apartheid system of white minority rule in 1994.

The ANC has won a majority in every national election over the last 30 years, but several polls put its support at less than 50% ahead of this one, raising the chance of a major shift in Africa's most advanced economy. Final election results are expected by Sunday.

As the ANC's appeal as liberator fades among younger voters with no memory of apartheid, opposition parties are closing in and vowing to deliver on promises that many feel have gone unfulfilled.

Main opposition leader John Steenhuisen of the Democratic Alliance party called it “South Africa’s most consequential election in post-democratic history.” He urged people to vote the ANC out to “rescue” the country.

“There's so much at stake in this election, people cannot stay at home,” Steenhuisen said as he campaigned in the party's stronghold of Cape Town.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, the third biggest party in Parliament, said it was calling on supporters to “flood the voting stations to have our say tomorrow.”

The ANC asserted that it was “the only authentic political party with the capacity and experience to govern.”

South Africa's opposition parties have highlighted the widespread poverty, high unemployment and failure of basic government services in many communities as reasons to turn away from the ANC after three decades.

But there likely will not be a new ruling party in its place.

The ANC is still expected to win the most seats in Parliament. But without an outright majority it might need to rely on a coalition to govern and reelect President Cyril Ramaphosa for a second and final five-year term. That's never happened before in South Africa. Who in the opposition the ANC might turn to is still not clear.

The ANC insists it is focused on retaining its majority.

Voting began Monday and Tuesday with South Africans who were given special permission, like older people, members of the armed forces and critical workers, casting early ballots. A little over 600,000 people were registered to vote early, the independent electoral commission said.

The vast majority of the nearly 28 million registered voters in the country of 62 million are expected to go to the polls across South Africa's nine provinces on Wednesday, which is a national holiday.

More than 50 parties are registered to contest the national election, the most ever, according to the electoral commission. Many of the parties are new. Independent candidates are also allowed to stand for the first time.

That's given rise to a fragmented opposition which also includes former South African President Jacob Zuma's new MK Party.

Shamiso Tebogo Bopape, a 21-year-old University of Johannesburg student, said there was not one clear opposition party for her and other young people to choose.

“We don’t know who to put our trust in," she said. “The smaller parties, they have not been placed in these more affluent positions or bigger positions. We haven’t given them enough power to see what they would do in that position, so we can’t necessarily say we trust them.”

The electoral commission has said the special voting generally started smoothly. South Africa has held largely peaceful and credible elections since a violent buildup to the pivotal 1994 vote that brought down apartheid.

The commission did say it faced a battle against election misinformation. In the latest example, it said that South Africans would be allowed to vote even if they had manicured or false fingernails, debunking claims they wouldn't. Such nails would not affect how officials apply a mark of indelible ink at the base of the left thumb to indicate someone has voted, the commission said.


Risemberg reported from Johannesburg.


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