JOHANNESBURG — The African National Congress appeared on Friday to be on track to retain control of South Africa’s national government after this week’s election, but widespread voter disillusionment contributed to the party’s weakest electoral showing since the start of democracy a quarter-century ago.
President Cyril Ramaphosa had hoped that a decisive victory would hand him a popular mandate to carry out far-reaching reforms. But the results from Wednesday’s election — though largely positive given a stagnant economy and the relentless revelations of corruption in the party — were unlikely to quell powerful party rivals, political analysts said.
“Nothing changes inside the A.N.C.,” said Ralph Mathekga, the author of “Ramaphosa’s Turn: Can Cyril Save South Africa?” “His supporters will say that the results would have been worse without him, and his rivals will say the opposite,” he added. “The internal battles will continue.”
On Friday afternoon, the African National Congress was also at risk of losing its hold on the province of Gauteng, a major battleground that is home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the economic and political capitals. If the party ends up with less than a majority in Gauteng, then it will most likely be forced to enter into a governing coalition that would dilute its power in the province, the nation’s richest, and reduce its control of the sizable budget there.
Gauteng includes the biggest concentration of black middle-class South Africans. With the votes counted in about 60 percent of the districts there, the party’s share of the vote was less than a percentage point below 50 percent. (In 2014, the African National Congress won the province with 55 percent.)
Nationwide, victory for the African National Congress, which has governed continuously since the end of apartheid in 1994, had never been in doubt. And with votes tallied in about 90 percent of districts, the party had an insurmountable lead that ensured a five-year term for Mr. Ramaphosa, who had made fighting corruption a pillar of his campaign.
But the party had garnered only 57 percent of the vote nationwide by Friday — a drop from 62 percent in the last general election and the first time that figure had fallen below the symbolically important threshold of 60 percent. (Since 1994, it had never received less than 62 percent of the nationwide vote, making 60 percent a longstanding marker. After the party’s share of the vote peaked at 70 percent in 2009, it declined steadily in the past decade under Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, whose terms were marked by rampant graft.)
The election results underscored the growing disillusionment with South Africa’s political system and its young democracy. Voter turnout fell to 66 percent, from 73 percent in 2014 — low by the standards of a nation where black South Africans earned the right to vote only a generation ago and where long, snaking lines outside polling stations were a staple of previous ballots.
On Wednesday, voters cast ballots for the national Parliament and for legislatures in nine provinces in the sixth general election after the end of apartheid. But an increasing number of South Africans simply stayed home instead of handing their support to another party. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, suffered a dip in support compared to its performance in 2014. The Economic Freedom Fighters, a party established in 2013, grew less than expected.
“A lot of people have simply given up on the parties, their leaders and democratic institutions,” said William Gumede, a political scientist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “With no economic growth, this is a dangerous situation South Africa is in.”
As the results came in, party officials began positioning themselves for the postelection battles.
Fikile Mbalula, a Ramaphosa ally who was head of the A.N.C.’s election campaign, told reporters that the president had saved the party. Without Mr. Ramaphosa, he said, the party’s share of the vote “would have probably dropped to 40 percent.”
But Ace Magashule, the party’s secretary general and the leader of the rival faction, responded: “That’s nonsense. People are electing the A.N.C. It’s not about any individual.”
At the same news conference, Mr. Magashule, who is the former leader of a province where corruption flourished under his watch and who is close to Mr. Zuma, said that the former president had been important in getting votes in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. There, support for the African National Congress dropped by about 10 percent compared to five years ago.
“Imagine if Comrade Jacob Zuma did not campaign,” he said. “What was going to be the outcome?”
For both Mr. Ramaphosa’s allies and rivals in the party, one of the most consequential questions focused on whether a Ramaphosa-led African National Congress would outperform the party under Mr. Zuma. The results would embolden one side or another in the continuing internecine battles.
Mr. Ramaphosa has appointed well-respected officials to bring in changes to state enterprises. But his party rivals include individuals who still have close ties to Mr. Zuma and who have been suspected of corruption.
Even if the party’s lead is maintained when the final ballots are counted, its performance in Gauteng would underscore its transformation from an organization with broad appeal to one that caters to the nation’s poor urban and rural majority.
The preliminary results indicated that Mr. Ramaphosa would be unable to win back the black middle-class voters who, angry about corruption in the party, had abandoned it in recent years.
“The black middle-class has given up on the A.N.C. — there’s no evidence it’s ever going back,” said Steven Friedman, a political scientist at the University of Johannesburg.
“The A.N.C. is now a party of the working class, shack-settlement dwellers and people in the townships who say they’ve had enough with the party, but think it’s worth a try because they see no alternative,” he added.
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