South Africa's Parliament is choosing a president in a vote with unprecedented uncertainty

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — For the first time in 30 years, South African lawmakers will elect a president on Friday with the outcome not a mere formality.

Cyril Ramaphosa is seeking a second term as leader of Africa’s most industrialized economy but his African National Congress party has been weakened after losing its long-held majority in an election last month and he will need the support of other parties if he is to return as president.

The ANC is hoping that a general coalition agreement with others — particularly the main opposition Democratic Alliance — will hold and they will back Ramaphosa’s reelection. The ANC needs lawmakers from parties that were once its main political foes to now vote for Ramaphosa and continue the ANC’s three-decade hold on the presidency.

The ANC announced late Thursday night that it had a coalition agreement in principle with the DA and other smaller parties, but ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula said the final details of the agreement were still being worked out. Crucially, he did not say there was an agreement among those coalition partners for their lawmakers to vote for Ramaphosa in Parliament, even if he said that’s what the ANC hoped would happen.

The DA, the second largest party in Parliament behind the ANC and which has a potentially decisive number of lawmakers, said talks on the exact details had continued through the night and into early Friday and there was no signed agreement just hours before Parliament was due to convene at 10 a.m. local time.

The 71-year-old Ramaphosa is expected to be reelected given no other candidate has been put forward, but the country was on a political knife-edge ahead of the first sitting of Parliament since the landmark May 29 election. He could have a smooth passage to a second term if he is the only candidate nominated, in which case he would be elected automatically. But if other candidates are nominated by other parties, a vote follows.

The ANC was also facing a deadline to cobble together a coalition agreement of some sort given Parliament must sit for the first time and vote for the president within 14 days of the election results being declared. The deadline is Sunday, and Parliament was sitting on Friday to meet that deadline.

South Africa has not faced this level of political uncertainty since the ANC swept to power in the first all-race election in 1994 that ended nearly a half-century of white minority rule under the apartheid system of racial segregation.

The ANC had held a clear majority in Parliament ever since then, meaning elections for president were formalities and every South African leader since has been from the ANC, starting with Nelson Mandela. Last month’s election changed that as the ANC’s share of the vote slumped to 40%. The DA won the second largest share of the vote with 21%, making it a key party in the coalition talks.

The ANC had proposed forming a government of national unity in the wake of the election and invited all of the other 17 parties that won seats in Parliament to join. Some have refused.

On Friday, Parliament will first elect a speaker and deputy speaker before the vote for president and the sitting could take hours. The lower house of Parliament, called the National Assembly, will vote for all those positions. It is made up of 400 lawmakers, and a majority of votes cast is required to elect a president. They vote by secret ballot.

At least one party, the MK Party of former ANC leader and South African President Jacob Zuma, has said it will boycott the first sitting and its 58 lawmakers will not take their seats. That is not expected to affect the voting procedure as South Africa’s constitution says that at least one third of the 400 lawmakers need to be present for a quorum and for votes to take place. The ANC has more than a third of seats on its own.

Parliament will also convene in an unusual setting after a fire in 2022 gutted the National Assembly building in Cape Town. It has not yet been restored and so lawmakers will decide the next leader of their country at a conference center near the city’s waterfront.


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