South Africa's main opposition party elects Steenhuisen as new leader

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CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's main opposition party, the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA), elected a new leader on Sunday, former chief whip in parliament John Steenhuisen, 44, in a sometimes fractious internal contest ahead of local elections next year.

At a two-day elective conference held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic and attended by more than 2,000 delegates, Steenhuisen won 80% of the vote.

A 21-year party veteran, Steenhuisen beat relative newcomer Mbali Ntuli, 32, to the position. Steenhuisen is seen as representing the comparatively conservative wing of the party, while Ntuli was seen as more progressive.

Division between the two perceived camps spilled into the public after the 2019 national elections, when the DA's share of the vote fell to 20.8% from 22.2% five years earlier, bleeding votes to the radical Economic Freedom Fighters on the left and the mainly Afrikaner Freedom Front Plus on the right.

The fallout led to the sudden resignation of Mmusi Maimane, the party's first Black leader, appointed in 2014 to broaden an historically white liberal party's appeal to Black voters. His departure was followed that of other prominent Black leaders.

In a victory speech, Steenhuisen, who is white, said the party would try to move away from "populist shortcuts", aiming to provide economic opportunities for all.

"People have had endless debates about the meaning of liberalism in today's world. For me, liberalism in its purest form is a commitment to give power to the people so that they can decide for themselves how to build lives of value," he said.

With municipal elections due next year, and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) seen weakened by an economy in deep recession, the opposition's new leadership marks the beginning of its election campaign.

(Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana)