Cape Town - South Africans go to the polls on Wednesday for a vote that will return President Jacob Zuma
to power but for a chapter concerned with to whom, and when, he will bow out.
The ANC is headed for its fifth landslide victory but with its majority dented by scandal, inner alliance strife, discontent with sluggish service delivery, and dashed hopes of economic inclusion, analysts and surveys agree.
Yet the share of votes lost will be smaller than the protests, outrage over "undue benefit" the president was found to have derived from the Nkandla project and the Vote No campaign suggest.
The last pre-election Ipsos survey, released on Friday, forecast 63% for the ANC and 22% for the DA. It factored in a wide margin of error since a third of 25 million registered voters felt no party reflected their views.
Voters this year will include a "born free" generation electing a government for the first time.
Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi predicted the same score or higher for the ANC because the blurring between race and class lines has been too slight to see a significant loss of support to the DA.
"The width of the inroads will not be much bigger than that of footpaths," he commented in a newspaper column.
The DA's campaign has been weaker than the one it ran ahead of the 2011 municipal elections, he added, and its black leaders have failed to show an empathetic grasp of the stark social and economic reality lived by most ANC voters.
Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, did not foresee "any meltdown" at the polls for the ruling party. Nor did he believe the media coverage attracted by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) would be matched by votes cast on Wednesday.
Disenchantment of voters
The ANC’s electoral pitch has relied heavily on past glories and on the outpouring of grief over the death of its former leader Nelson Mandela to shore up support.
"Do it for Madiba, Vote ANC!" read one prominent campaign poster.
But many commentators have billed this election as the last to be dominated by South Africa's post-apartheid past.
Much will depend on turnout and on how the roughly one million South Africans who never knew apartheid will cast their ballots.
"Every party has its pros and its cons, so I need to just take some time and think about what is relevant to me," said young voter Mealyn Joyce.
"I'm not voting on a historical basis, I'm voting on what I think I need as a young person."
The ANC should shed support as three factors contribute to keep formerly loyal supporters away from the polling booths.
The first is the disenchantment of average ANC voters, and the second and third the weakened state of the Cosatu and the ANC Youth League, both traditional forces of voter mobilisation for the ruling party.
However, Friedman said a loss of its majority share could be one of the problems Zuma faces when he returns to office for his last term.
It is one that will see factionalism in the party intensify as it looks ahead to its next elective party conference in Mahikeng in 2017. Those opposed to Zuma are likely to resort to blaming the president for percentage points lost at the polls.
"He will have difficulties he has not had before," Friedman said, adding: "He could become a victim of the battle of Mahikeng."
That battle will pit the KwaZulu-Natal based contenders for the leadership against Cyril Ramaphosa, who will become the country's deputy president in the next few weeks and, according to tradition, the next ANC leader.
Describing Ramaphosa as "not the most courageous politician the world has known", Friedman said he would sit back and let his supporters fight a looming succession battle against the Zuma loyalists in KwaZulu-Natal, led by ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize.
"The big fault line is KwaZulu-Natal saying it is the biggest province so they should choose the next president."
It is in this infighting that the Nkandla debacle will have its real impact, with the one faction accusing the other of having used leaks to the media over lavish spending on the compound to create the perception that the president is corrupt, he said.
The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) too suggests Zuma's woes are going to get worse as violent protests, which predictably peaked during the election campaign, persist in the aftermath.
ISS researcher Lizette Lancaster said local grievances escalated into national political issues and the government was expected to face considerable pre-election violence ahead of the 2016 municipal elections as new contenders tried to unseat councillors.
She noted that in the election run-up, politically motivated violence shifted away from KwaZulu-Natal to the hotly contested Western Cape and Gauteng.
While the DA is confident of retaining power in the Western Cape and the ANC in Gauteng, the ISS predicted that in the country's economic centre, Wednesday's vote would show the ANC lose a significant share of the 64% it won five years ago.
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