JOHANNESBURG South Africa's electoral commission counted votes Thursday, the day after a parliamentary poll that was expected to be the toughest test yet for the long-ruling African National Congress.
Initial results showed the ANC ahead, but with a much slimmer lead than it had held in previous elections � and also turned up surprises, in the form of allegations of double-voting and in the unexpected success of a small party that critics say has a white nationalist agenda.
This was predicted to be a dramatic vote for the Rainbow Nation, which this year marks 25 years after the end of Apartheid.
As officials trudged through millions of votes on Thursday, election officials announced they would "urgently conduct" an audit into allegations that some citizens may have voted more than once, by removing the indelible ink voting officials put on every voter's thumb.
Election officials said four people had been arrested for double-voting, and assured voters that they would still be able to release final results within the seven days allowed by law.
Independent analyst Ralph Mathekga says he's concerned that other political parties will step up with allegations of irregularities, a move that he worries could delay results and have serious consequences.
"It's a big deal," he told VOA.
"We've not seen this before," he continued "... But to be honest with you, when you start going that route, it's a very, very, very serious challenge. When do you stop in pursuit of that kind of an inquiry? You're opening a floodgate, because if you start doing all, If you start doing all of these audits, everybody is going to complain, and when you hear that election results are not going to be announced on Saturday, for me, it's a crisis."
Analyst Angelo Fick says he's less concerned, and doesn't foresee that results will be significantly delayed by the audit.
Speaking from the national counting center, he told VOA the audit that's just been announced by the IEC is "a measure of their confidence in the fact that their systems have worked."
He said they are "fairly confident that there has been no problem and they will now seek independent confirmation of that."
"And this is also to allay the fears of those who are misreading the statistical significance of these irregularities because this happened in a number of stations across a country that had 22,000 voting stations," he added. "And I think it's also to start building up a bulwark against political parties who are going to suggest and have already begun to suggest that their underperformance is not a consequence of their own issues, but a consequence of electoral fraud."
In the most populous province, Gauteng, the IEC's Boitumelo Monaki said officials were responsive to concerns about possible fraud. The province, which contains the nation's economic hub of Johannesburg, has been hotly contested by the top three parties.
"I can confirm that counting is going well at our voting centers around the province," he told VOA. "And then where there are cases of fraud whereby double voting is being reported, the electoral commission is requesting political parties to bring evidence of that so that the matter can be investigated," she said.
The long-ruling African National Congress is expected to win the greatest number of votes, followed by the opposition Democratic Alliance and the upstart, far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party.
Early results showed the ANC taking a smaller share of the vote than it had in previous elections. Corruption scandals and the sluggish economy have tainted the ANC's image and led some voters to defect.
What pollsters did not see coming was the success of the Afrikaans-speaking VF Plus party, whose English name is Freedom Front Plus. The party's aim is to create a homeland for the nation's white Afrikaans-speaking minority.
The fringe party surprised many casual observers by surging into fourth place in early counts, eclipsing its one-percent take in the 2014 election, though its take remains in the single digits.
"It is," said Fick, "an electoral surprise, but it isn't a political surprise that the Freedom Front Plus has increased its share of the vote in South Africa."
"We have seen a growing disaffection among people who identify in conservative circles and on the far right with the way which which the official opposition and other parties they may have supported have behaved over the last five years," he said. "With policy shifts slightly to the left, into the liberal territory, many voters may find that they are no longer happy, and no longer capable, of seeing themselves reflected in other parties and have shifted to the Freedom Front Plus."
Source: Voice of America