Election due: General election scheduled for May 7.
Backdrop: South Africa's economy grew 0.7 percent on quarter in the third quarter of 2013, the slowest pace in more than four years, and sticky inflation stood at an annual 5.4 percent on year in December. Its currency, the rand, hit a five-year low against the dollar in January, exacerbating labor disputes and a wide current-account deficit.
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Key election themes: Unemployment running at about 24 percent, poor infrastructure, labor unrest, a weak economy and corruption.
Expected outcome: The African National Congress (ANC) is expected to extend its 20-year hold on power but with a reduced minority in the 400-seat parliament amid corruption scandals and civil unrest. The ANC has won each of the last four elections by a landslide, winning more than 60 percent of the popular vote. The Democratic Alliance is the official opposition and currently holds 67 seats to the ANC's 264.
The wild card: According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a think tank, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF), founded by former head of the ANC's youth wing Julius Malema is something to watch. The EEF favors wholesale nationalization of land and industry and appeals directly to the poor in townships and rural areas. Some analysts say the EEF could win as much as 10 percent of the vote – a development that would be an "earthquake," the CFR said.
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View from the experts: "Conventional wisdom is that this will be the most competitive election in the country's post-apartheid history," analysts at CFR wrote last month. "Should the ANC's share of parliamentary seats fall below 60 percent, there likely will be a strong move to replace [President Jacob] Zuma as party leader–and as chief of state. However, it is difficult to imagine that the ANC will 'lose' its majority in parliament."