PRETORIA, South Africa - Approval ratings for South Africa’s ruling party are at record lows, portending its worst election result since taking power 30 years ago after the end of apartheid.

The African National Congress’ (ANC) mismanagement of Africa’s largest economy is the main driver of its plummeting approval rating, according to polling by Gallup. Unemployment at around 33%, soaring crime rates and a series of corruption scandals have also eroded public trust in the party ahead of the general election on May 29.

Despite all that, the ANC is still expected to win the largest share of votes next week. “The ANC’s greatest gift is this gift of a weak opposition,” an expert told Foreign Policy. But it may fail to secure the 50% share of the vote needed to form a government. If so, the ANC would need to form a coalition government with smaller parties for the first time.

In the 30 years that South Africa has been a democracy, none of the country’s past national elections has felt quite as uncertain as this month’s vote.

South Africans head to the polls next week to decide whether the political party that has led their country since the end of apartheid will lead it into the future.

Gallup surveys in South Africa reveal a level of disenchantment that does not bode well for the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) party, which could lose its parliamentary majority for the first time in 30 years.

Approval of Country’s Leadership Languishes

After the ANC’s landmark win in the 1994 elections, which propelled Nelson Mandela to the presidency, the party enjoyed a strong mandate across the country, cresting with nearly 70% of the vote in 2004. However, the party has been on a downward trajectory for the past two decades, plagued by poor economic conditions, rising unemployment and a series of scandals.

These struggles are reflected in South Africans’ approval of their leaders’ job performance. In Gallup’s initial reading on this question in 2007, a record-high two-thirds of South Africans (67%) said they approved of the country’s leadership. However, approval declined sharply in the following years, and it has hovered near 30% in 2022 and 2023.

The ANC has governed the country continuously since it was allowed to participate in elections in 1994. Yet growing and persistent concerns about the economy, safety and infrastructure have seen its support decline over the past 20 years. The coming elections may serve as a turning point for the nation if the ANC receives less than 50% of the vote, dropping the party out of the majority position it has held and necessitating negotiations to form a coalition government.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is the ANC’s main opposition party, garnering 20% of the vote in the previous elections. The DA’s leadership has positioned the party as pro-business and has left open the possibility of entering a deal with the ANC, should the incumbent party fail to gain enough votes to hold on to power in parliament.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a far-left populist party led by the controversial Julius Malema, is a stark contrast to the DA. While Malema’s promises of jobs have resonated with youth, his more controversial statements, like the expropriation of White-owned lands, have caused others to express concern. Representing a particular threat to the ruling party is the breakaway uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK), led by former President (and former head of the ANC) Jacob Zuma. Zuma himself has been barred from running for a seat.