South Africa’s ANC Courts Rivals After Election Humiliation

(Bloomberg) -- South Africa’s African National Congress has begun talks with rivals to form a government following its worst performance since Nelson Mandela led it to power at the end of apartheid in 1994.

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The ANC obtained 159 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly in the May 29 elections, the electoral commission announced on Sunday, a precipitous decline from the 230 seats President Cyril Ramaphosa’s party won five years ago.

The ANC’s slump to just about 40% of the vote comes after years of economic mismanagement and corruption saddled the country with one of the world’s highest unemployment rates and weak growth. The electoral shake-up has pushed Africa’s most-industrialized nation into uncharted territory, with the ANC now likely to be forced to rely on cooperation from bitter rivals if it is to retain power.

“We are talking to everybody,” Fikile Mbalula, the ANC’s secretary-general told a press conference on Sunday before the final results were announced. “A coalition is a consequence, when you don’t have a majority, you do do that.”

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The Democratic Alliance secured 87 seats, retaining its position as the main opposition. A party led by a former ANC and national president, Jacob Zuma, was third — it won 58 seats just six months after its launch.

Mbalula said his party will assess all options, including the eventuality that a coalition agreement can’t be reached, which could necessitate a rerun of the election. It won’t, however, entertain demands by Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe party that its support is contingent on Ramaphosa’s exit from office. Most of the seats lost by the ANC were taken up by Zuma’s party.

“Ramaphosa is the president of the ANC and if you come with a demand that he must step down, you must forget,” Mbalula said. “No political party will dictate terms like that to us.”

The ANC’s top leaders will meet on Tuesday to review what its talks with rivals have yielded. If it chooses to form a minority government, it will still need the support of a rival to appoint a president as that position is voted on by parliament.

The electoral commission officially announced the results on Sunday evening, notwithstanding Zuma’s demand that they delay to review its allegations of voter irregularities.

“This was a theater of openness,” said Sy Mamabolo, the electoral commission’s chief electoral officer. “Our democracy has spoken, indeed the people have expressed their political choices though the ballot box. We must now act to honor the choice of the voter.”

Ramaphosa was in a jocular mood at the results ceremony, commenting on a mistake by the electoral official who announced that he was about to deliver results for the 2019 election, before correcting himself.

“How I wish the statement you made, saying these were the 2019 election results, was true,” he said, drawing loud cheers from the audience. He also nodded to speculation that the ANC’s loss of support in the election may cost him his job. Another official at the ceremony mistakenly referred to guests as “extinguished” instead of “distinguished.”

“I’m not yet extinguished,” Ramaphosa said.

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Under the constitution, South Africa’s National Assembly must convene within 14 days to elect a speaker and a president after the declaration of the election outcome.

The extent of the ANC’s loss leaves it with the choice of turning to the DA, which Ramaphosa’s allies favor, or seeking an alliance on the left with either Zuma’s party, known as the MKP, or the populist EFF.

The DA agreed on Sunday to open talks with rivals to avoid what it refers to as a “doomsday coalition” — that would group the ANC with Zuma’s party and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters.

“The DA’s Federal Executive has unanimously adopted a resolution to initiate exploratory talks with other political parties that share a commitment to the South African constitution,” DA leader John Steenhuisen said in an address broadcast on YouTube.

DA leaders are leaning toward seeking a formal coalition with the ANC in which they would receive some cabinet posts and control of several parliamentary portfolio committees, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified as the talks aren’t public. Some DA leaders oppose the idea, the people said, and a decision has yet to be taken.

The Inkatha Freedom Party, a small party that’s been working with the DA, also organized a gathering of its national executive committee on Sunday.

EFF leader Julius Malema, who established the party in 2013 after he was expelled from the ANC, said he’s open to cooperating with it.

The ANC is considering a wide range of options that would allow it to work with rivals, with people familiar with the situation saying the possibility of appointing a finance minister from outside of the party is being considered. The president can appoint two people to cabinet who aren’t members of parliament.

An alliance with the DA would be welcomed by financial markets as it would likely see the acceleration of economic reforms and privatization initiatives that Ramaphosa has begun to implement. It could also see chronic power and water shortages tackled and action taken to improve the woeful performance of the freight rail and port networks.

The voter turnout at 58.61% was less than 66% in 2019.

--With assistance from Ana Monteiro, Monique Vanek, S'thembile Cele and Alister Bull.

(Updates with details throughout.)

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