JOHANNESBURG — Lines of South African voters snaked around dusty fields, up misty hills and around gritty urban neighborhoods Wednesday, all for an election expected to propel Jacob Zuma to power despite sex and corruption scandals that would have buried a less wily populist.
The ruling African National Congress party views Zuma as the first leader who can energize voters since the legendary Nelson Mandela. But critics say Zuma is too beholden to unions and leftists and won't be able to fulfill promises of creating jobs and a stronger social safety net amid the global recession.
Zuma himself has tried to dampen expectations _ and even that does not dampen his popularity.
South Africa's poor black majority connects on a visceral level with Zuma's deprived background. His warmth and ease on the campaign trail, where he was quick to flash a gap-toothed smile or break into song, is reminiscent of Mandela's style. It's also a crowd-pleasing contrast to the aloof, intellectual Thabo Mbeki, the ANC rival Zuma ousted as one of his first steps on the road to the presidency.
"Never did I think as I was growing up here that one day I would cast my vote here as I am doing," Zuma told reporters in the country's eastern, rural Zulu heartland. "It must be great, feeling the difference from the olden days to where we are today, when we can decide our own fate."
The 67-year-old former ANC guerrilla, who was imprisoned for 10 years on Robben Island alongside Mandela, was greeted by about 100 supporters at his voting station, a school within site of his homestead. They cheered and broke into his signature song from the anti-apartheid era, "Bring Me My Machine Gun."
The ANC predicts an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary election, whose results are expected late Thursday. Parliament elects South Africa's president, putting Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.
A record 23 million South Africans registered. The turnout was so heavy _ polling officials said it could be more than their pre-vote estimate of 80 percent _ that some stations had temporary ballot shortages or struggled because ballot boxes filled so quickly.
The enthusiasm was attributed both to Zuma's popularity and the emergence of a new party that broke away from the ANC and forced the dominant ANC to campaign more aggressively.
"I think people sense this is a historic moment," said Chris Hennemeyer, an expert for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems who monitored voting in Johannesburg.
Derrick Marco of South Africa's independent Election Monitoring Network said there was no question the ANC would win _ though he would not hazard a guess on whether the party would match the two-thirds it received of the last vote in 2004.
Without that mark, the party will not be able to enact major budgetary and legislation unchallenged, or change the constitution. The ANC won 69.9 percent of the vote in the 2004 vote and Zuma said Tuesday he expected an overwhelming majority again.
Samuel Kekana, a 46-year-old security guard who lined up early in Soweto, said he was voting for the ANC, which he credited with building schools and houses and improving education since first taking power in 1994.
Kekana said he had voted in that election and every one since.
S'thembiso Mchunu, a 20-year-old gas station attendant in eastern South Africa, complained about unemployment _ about a quarter of South Africa's work force is jobless.
"For a better future, we need change," he said, refusing to say which party got his vote. "We're hoping for a new party to rule."
Retired Cape Town Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid campaign and has dedicated himself since to building democracy in South Africa, has questioned whether Zuma is fit to govern.
On Wednesday, casting his ballot in Cape Town, Tutu would not say which party he favored.
"I feel good, but it isn't like the previous elections. That is true of so many people who are having to ask questions," Tutu said. "It's good for democracy."
The governing party has been accused of moving too slowly over the last 15 years to improve the lives of South Africa's black majority. During this campaign, the ANC has stressed its commitment to uplift the poor in this nation of nearly 50 million, which is plagued by unemployment and an AIDS epidemic.
Zuma says decisions are made by the collective leadership, indicating there won't be major shifts in domestic or foreign policies. Even before Zuma took over, the ANC had rolled out AIDS drugs and responded to criticism of Mbeki's refusal to believe AIDS was caused by a virus.
Mbeki had carved out a leading role for South Africa as the continent's peacemaker, but has been accused taking too soft a line on Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. But now that Mbeki's efforts have yielded a power-sharing government in Zimbabwe, the pressure will be off Zuma.
Zuma is expected to continue supporting Zimbabwe's unity government as the best solution to its political, economic and humanitarian crises.
Mbeki was forced to step down last year as South African president after he was defeated by Zuma in a bitter power struggle for the ANC leadership. Kgalema Motlanthe was appointed president of a caretaker government until the election.
Zuma was fired by Mbeki as deputy president in 2005 after he was implicated in an arms deal bribery scandal. After a series of protracted legal battles, prosecutors dropped all charges against him earlier this month. In 2006, Zuma was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend.
"You'd have to be blind not to question his morality," said Genius Mnywabe, 32, an advertising manager in Cape Town.
But Mnywabe also credited the ANC with managing South Africa's economy and doing much to improve conditions for the poor.
Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in KwaNxamalala, Clare Nullis in Cape Town and Celean Jacobson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.