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South Africans Go to the Polls Wednesday

South Africans begin voting Wednesday in a general election in which the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is expected to win. The ruling party, however, faces a stiff challenge from opposition parties, including the breakaway Congress of the People (COPE).

The new party, which was formed by embittered former members of the ANC, claimed it is in the general election to win. But the ANC said its supporters have been energized by the emergence of the opposition COPE. Shadrack Gutto is a political analyst.

He told VOA the excitement ahead of Tuesday's vote could easily be compared to the excitement after blacks were allowed to vote for the first time in 1994.

"The first thing is for me to actually decide what time I am going to vote and I will vote today," Gutto said. "And it is important for me to vote because I think more than any other time this is a time which is quite exciting in South Africa in terms of electoral politics. We have - not just in terms of the offer - we have various political parties participating and therefore the voter is spoiled for choice."

He said campaigns ahead of Tuesday's vote were mostly issue-based.

"Importantly also is it is the issues which are in the forefront in terms of what the voters would have to choose from. So, I would say that today is very exciting and we are looking forward to it and I think the 23 and plus million registered voters are looking forward and they are already casting their votes and they are going to do so until late in the evening," he said.

Gutto described Wednesday's election as significant.

"I think that this is one of the critical elections in South Africa. 1994 was important because it was the first time that there was a truly democratic election in the country where the majority voted and it depended on what the majority decided. It was not a question of really whites voting among themselves, a minority deciding to vote to choose minority leadership," Gutto said.

He said the enthusiasm that ordinary South Africans have shown so far can easily be comparable to the excitement exhibited when blacks were allowed to vote for the first time.

"I think this time the excitement is a bit different, but also at the same level in terms of the pitch," he said.

Gutto said there were indications that the opposition parties would pose a strong challenge to the ruling party in the poll.

"Today's voting will be interesting. First of all the main challenger to the ANC I would say is the splinter group which is now the Congress of the People (COPE). And indeed it knows the ANC inside out both from the liberation movement and in government and so on so the credentials issues don't fit in for the ANC," Gutto said.

He said the opposition COPE has a Herculean task taking on the ruling party in Tuesday's vote.

"Secondly, it is a very new party, which is barely a 100 days old and you are dealing with the ANC which is almost 100 years old. So it has advantages and disadvantages: too young, no time to organize and so on. The ANC is very old and organized and therefore one is looking forward to a situation where you are actually measuring the potential opposition party emerging from zero to something. What will it come up to?" he asked.

Meanwhile, the presidential candidate for the ruling ANC Jacob Zuma has called for what he described as a massive turnout to give his party an overwhelming mandate in its toughest test since the end of apartheid. But the opposition warned South Africans throughout the campaign period that giving the ANC a two-thirds majority in Tuesday's election would enable the party to single-handedly amend the constitution without consultation with the opposition.

Some political analysts said although there are controversies surrounding ANC leader Jacob Zuma, he seems to be the most popular politician ahead of the general election.

Zuma had eight year-old graft charges against him dropped by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) ahead of the election, a decision that infuriated the opposition, which claimed the NPA caved under political pressure. The opposition believes that the dropping of the charges gave a significant boost to the ANC ahead of the vote. But Zuma and his supporters maintained that the graft charges were politically motivated to prevent him from becoming South Africa's next president.

Zuma is, however, expected to become South Africa's next president after the ballots of 23 million South Africans have been counted. But the ANC risks losing the two-thirds majority in parliament it needs to change the constitution in the face of challenge from new opposition party.

Recent opinion polls ahead of Wednesday's election suggest the ruling African National Congress (ANC) was on course to win 60 per cent of the vote with the opposition Congress of the People (COPE), which was formed after former president Thabo Mbeki was forced from power, pulling in somewhere between three and 15 percent.