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Early election returns show South Africa's ruling party ahead of rivals

Early results of South African elections are displayed on electric boards at the Independent Electoral Commission Results Center, in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Results released by the national election commission showed the African National Congress with about 58 percent and the opposition Democratic Alliance with 28.5 percent after about 3.6 million votes had been counted in Wednesday's election. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

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Early results of South African elections are displayed on electric boards at the Independent Electoral Commission Results Center, in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Results released by the national election commission showed the African National Congress with about 58 percent and the opposition Democratic Alliance with 28.5 percent after about 3.6 million votes had been counted in Wednesday's election. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

PRETORIA, South Africa - South Africa's ruling party held a wide lead over its rivals in election results on Thursday, virtually assuring a victory for the movement that has dominated politics since the end of white minority rule 20 years ago but has lost some lustre because of concerns about corruption, mismanagement and a gulf between the poor and wealthy.

The African National Congress was leading with nearly 63 per cent of the vote after about three-quarters of 22,000 voting districts had been counted, South Africa's election commission reported at nightfall. The main opposition group, the Democratic Alliance, had 22 per cent and the Economic Freedom Fighters, a new party that wants to redistribute resources to the poor, was third with 5 per cent.

Nearly 12 million votes had been counted and turnout was about 73 per cent, according to election officials. More than 25 million South Africans, or half the population, had registered to vote in the fifth all-race polls in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. Under South Africa's system of proportional representation, the 400 seats in the National Assembly will be divvied up among parties based on their vote tallies.

"We will get a majority vote, we are just not sure by how much though," the South African Press Association quoted the ruling party's secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, as saying.

In a second term, President Jacob Zuma will prioritize market reforms, fiscal conservatism and crack down on labour unrest in an effort to draw foreign investment, said Robert Besseling, an analyst at IHS Country Risk. He predicted that Zuma would move to end a strike in the platinum sector that began in January, possibly by seeking court action in favour of mining companies and then deploying security forces. Besseling also said that eventually the left wing of the ruling party would split away.

In the last election in 2009, the African National Congress fell just short of a two-thirds majority in parliament. If the partial vote tallies hold, the ruling party would return to power with a smaller margin of victory but could also point to the enduring loyalty of millions of South Africans who recall its prominent role in the fight against apartheid and recognize national advances in the democratic era.

On the ruling party's watch, millions of people have gained access to water and other basic services, but protests routinely erupt in areas where residents say the government has ignored their needs. President Jacob Zuma has become enmeshed in a scandal surrounding more than $20 million in state spending on his private home in the Nkandla area, though he denies any wrongdoing and has promised to work against graft.

The opposition Democratic Alliance is a centrist party led by former journalist and anti-apartheid activist Helen Zille. It controls the Western Cape, one of South Africa's nine provinces. The Economic Freedom Fighters is headed by Julius Malema, a former head of the ruling party's youth league whose supporters wear red berets in an echo of the populist style of the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez .

The election commission has said it will announce final results no earlier than Saturday to allow it time to handle any objections to the process. Voting went smoothly in most precincts, despite some delays and disruptions. Also, an African National Congress supporter was killed in an attack outside a voting station in KwaZulu-Natal province, the party said. It urged police and election officials to investigate.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated South Africa on the parliamentary and provincial elections amid reports of a high turnout.

Ban "applauds the determination of South Africans to participate meaningfully in the democratic system the country has fought so hard to establish, starting with the first multi-racial elections 20 years ago," U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said in a statement.

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