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South African Elections Set for April 14 - 2004-02-09

South African President Thabo Mbeki has set April 14 as the date for the country's third general elections since the end of apartheid.

Political analysts say the timing of the poll is key, as it will allow the inauguration of the next president on April 27, the 10th anniversary of the elections that ended apartheid in 1994.

The president says two months will be enough time for electoral officials to get ready for the election in which about 20 million registered voters can participate.

"Among other things, the electoral commission has been concerned that it should have enough time to register as many voters as possible, while allowing enough time for it to do everything necessary to organize and run the elections as required by the law," he said.

Announcement of the much anticipated polling date was delayed, in part, because the electoral commission wanted more time to register new voters. Now that the polling date has been set, the law requires the closing of the voters' roll. The president says that will happen at midnight Wednesday, after the date has been finalized by the national and provincial legislatures.

Analysts believe the ruling African National Congress will again win overwhelming control of parliament, and Mr. Mbeki will be sworn in for a second term in office.

Some have expressed concerns about voter apathy as South African democracy enters its second decade. Political analyst Claude Kabembe of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa says lack of a strong political opposition could convince some voters to stay home on election day.

"When you compare South Africa with European countries, I think there is more apathy in Europe than there is in this country," he said. "But indeed there are serious problems which also push people to stay away from the election in this country, and one of the reasons is really the absence of a strong or possible alternative to the ruling party."

Mr. Kabembe believes the main issues likely to be on voters' minds as they go to the polls include crime, poverty, unemployment and corruption. But the number one issue for many people, he says, will be HIV and AIDS, which affects five million people in South Africa and is considered the ruling party's main policy weakness.