JOHANNESBURG — South Africa's governing party set off fireworks and popped fizzy bottles of champagne Thursday as ballots were counted in the country's latest election. ANC chief Jacob Zuma said he was only thanking campaign workers _ but the celebration left little doubt about his ascension to the presidency.
Zuma reminded several thousand supporters gathered outside his party's downtown Johannesburg headquarters that the tally was still going on _ a technical point that hardly affected the party mood.
But he noted with relish that skeptics who had claimed his African National Congress party wouldn't get 60 percent of the parliamentary vote now "are saying 70."
With the all-but-official victory, Zuma takes on a heavy responsibility _ meeting expectations for change among South Africa's impoverished black majority. But that was for another day _ an ebullient Zuma drew wild cheers as he leapt high with one troupe of dancers and boogied with another with an energy that belied his 67 years.
That ability to connect, and Zuma's rise from poverty to political prominence have drawn adoring crowds throughout the election campaign. Critics, though, question whether he can implement his populist agenda amid the global economic meltdown.
There were calls throughout the rally for his signature song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," and Zuma obliged, but not before singing another apartheid-era song on prevailing against all odds.
The crowd was scathing about the opposition, parading coffins decorated with the insignia of other parties. Zuma did not join the mocking _ he has pledged to improve the ANC's relations with other parties, part of a more responsive and open executive.
Preliminary results from the 10.09 million ballots counted so far Thursday showed Zuma's ANC party leading the vote with 66.70 percent. Parliament elects South Africa's president by a simple majority, putting Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.
A record 23 million South Africans registered to vote. A 77 percent turnout has been recorded at those polling stations where counting has finished. Final results are expected late Thursday or possibly Friday.
The ANC views Zuma as the first leader who can energize voters since the legendary Nelson Mandela.
Te Ngubane, 52, a police station clerk, said she felt South Africa's previous government, under Zuma's ANC rival Thabo Mbeki, hadn't listened to people like her.
She was at Thursday's downtown rally with her friend Precious Mosiane, 25, who is looking for work.
"We are expecting a lot _ many houses, schools, jobs," Mosiane said. "We are aware that the economy is in trouble, but we are going to make sure" the government fulfills its promises.
The ANC has swept every poll since the first post-apartheid election in 1994. In 2004, the ruling ANC won 69.69 percent of the vote. The ANC needs to keep its two-thirds majority to enact major budgetary plans or legislation unchallenged, or to change the constitution.
The largely white opposition Democratic Alliance, according to Thursday's preliminary count, had 16.16 percent. It was expected to take South Africa's richest province, the Western Cape, from the ANC. DA leader Helen Zille had won praise as the mayor of Cape Town, the province's main city, and courted mixed race voters. The province is the heart of South Africa's wine, fruit and tourism industries.
The Congress of the People _ formed by a breakaway faction of the ANC last year _ was trailing with 7.75 percent in preliminary results. Early expectations it would pose a serious challenge to the governing party were dampened by internal leadership bickering and the lack of time to raise funds.
The ANC has been accused of moving too slowly over the last 15 years to improve people's lives in this nation of nearly 50 million, which is plagued by poverty, unemployment and an AIDS epidemic. In this race, the party stressed its commitment to creating jobs and a stronger social safety net.
Yet toward the end of his campaign, Zuma was talking not about creating jobs, but staving off job losses, noting the struggle South Africa will face amid the worldwide financial meltdown.
Vuyisile Gumada, a 26-year-old who runs an art gallery out of his mother's Soweto home, said his parents have supported the ANC "ever since I was born," and he feels voting for anyone else would be a betrayal.
"(But) all these promises that they make, let them come true," he said. "We in the community, we can see change, but there's not much change."
Zuma was fired as deputy president by then-President Mbeki in 2005 after Zuma was implicated in an arms bribery scandal. After protracted legal battles, prosecutors dropped all charges against him earlier this month. In 2006, the former guerrilla leader was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend.
Zuma defeated Mbeki in ANC leadership race in 2007. Then ANC then fired Mbeki as the nation's president and installed Kgalema Motlanthe as a caretaker president until Zuma could take over.
Zuma joined the ANC in 1959 and by 21 he was arrested while trying to leave the country illegally. He was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.
He left South Africa in 1975 for 15 years of exile, and was appointed chief of the ANC's intelligence department. Following the lifting of the ANC ban in 1990, Zuma was one of the first of the group's leaders to return to South Africa.
Associated Press writers Celean Jacobson in Pretoria, Clare Nullis in Cape Town and Michelle Faul in KwaNxamalala contributed to this report.