South Africa’s Cope Party Sees Voter Support Slump After Power Struggle

The Congress of the People, formed by dissidents from South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, hemorrhaged support in yesterday’s municipal election following a power struggle between its two top leaders.

With 9.1 million votes counted, the party garnered 2.6 percent of ballots cast, compared with 7.4 percent in parliamentary elections in 2009, just four months after its formation.

Mosiuoa Lekota, a former defense minister and ANC chairman, and his deputy, Mbhazima Shilowa, an ex-labor union leader and governor of the central Gauteng province, waged a protracted battle for the leadership of Cope. Lekota emerged the victor following several lawsuits that alienated many party followers and caused the resignation of its parliamentary leader, Mvume Dandala.

Cope would have “definitely done far better” without the dispute, Lekota said in an interview in Pretoria today. “There were lots of internal problems. I’ve never had any illusions that Cope could become a party in one year or two years of the size that could take government.”

Many of Cope’s leaders are veterans of South Africa’s struggle for democracy who backed former President Thabo Mbeki’s failed 2007 bid to win a third term as head of the ANC, losing out to the current president, Jacob Zuma. Their credibility among the black majority gave them hope that the party could challenge the monopoly on power the ANC has held since winning the nation’s first all-race elections in 1994.

No Surprise

Cope’s loss of support was unsurprising, given the internal wrangling, Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst at the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, said in a telephone interview.

Some of Cope’s supporters may have switched to the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, which won 22.3 percent of the preliminary vote tally. The party garnered 16.7 percent of votes in 2009.

“The collapse of Cope is the great tragedy of this election,” DA leader Helen Zille said in an interview in Pretoria today. “We need strong opposition parties if we want to boost democracy.”

Lekota said he expects a rebound in his party’s fortunes.

“We still have a presence in all of the provinces,” he said. “We can only grow and go forward.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Cohen in Cape Town at mcohen21@bloomberg.net; Franz Wild in Johannesburg at fwild@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

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