(Reuters) - South Africa's ruling ANC headed for election victory Thursday despite a reinvigorated opposition challenge and party leader Jacob Zuma was easily on course to become president weeks after beating graft charges.
Early results showed the African National Congress with 62 percent, battering the hopes of the Congress of the People (COPE) party, formed by ANC dissidents, that it might pose the first real challenge since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Zuma portrays himself as a champion of the poor, and for many voters the ANC's credentials from the fight against white minority rule still outweigh frustrations with its failure to tackle widespread crime, poverty and AIDS.
COPE won only 7.6 percent of the early votes counted. The biggest challenge came from the Democratic Alliance -- led by a white woman -- with 20.7 percent.
Opposition parties hoped to at least deprive the ANC of the two-thirds parliamentary majority that lets it change the constitution and entrench its hold, but with barely a tenth of the votes counted it was too early to say if that was the case.
"If I were to make a prediction now, I would think the ANC would be in the mid-sixties, just below two-thirds," said former opposition leader Tony Leon.
The final result is not expected before Friday but there is little doubt the 67-year-old Zuma will become president only three weeks after managing to get prosecutors to drop an eight-year-old corruption case that had tainted his reputation.
Among his first tasks will be reassuring foreign investors who fear his trade union allies will push him toward the left at a time the continent's biggest economy could already be in recession.
He has repeatedly said there will be no nasty surprises in store for investors, and with the economy possibly already in its first recession for 17 years, his room for policy maneuver is limited.
Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, a market favorite, is expected to stay for now.
Zuma has also pledged to tackle the rampant violent crime which could mar next year's hosting of the soccer World Cup.
Election officials estimated the turnout in Wednesday's vote at 76 percent -- the same as 2004, when the ANC won 70 percent of the vote. Most analysts see that slipping because of the new opposition challenge.
"We are entering a post-liberation era. People are talking about new issues and challenges and there's also a new generation that's not attached to the liberation struggle," said independent political analyst David Monyae.
In an indication of at least a localized shift against the ANC, the Democratic Alliance for the first time defeated the ruling party on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela, Zuma and other political prisoners were held during apartheid.
Police said the election was largely peaceful, although COPE said one of its officials was shot dead in what it believed to be a political killing.