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South Africa's ruling African National Congress suffered its worst electoral results since the end of apartheid, sparking fears the government will avoid painful reforms and try to win back votes by overspending.
The ANC — the party of Nelson Mandela that has dominated South African politics since the country's first open elections in 1994 — gained only 54 percent of votes on Wednesday, with the main opposition Democratic Alliance gaining in popularity.
The vote's result suggests South Africa's years under a de facto one-party political system are nearing a close. The Democratic Alliance was once dismissed as a party for the white middle classes but appears to be doing a better job of winning a broader base of voters.
Analysts warn the result may further deter the ANC from pushing through economic reforms needed to boost South Africa's stagnating economy, ahead of a national election due in 2019. The World Bank sees South African gross domestic product growing by only 0.6 percent this year.
"Official election results show that support for the ruling ANC fell below 60 percent for the first time ever. Pushing painful structural reforms probably isn't the first thing that an unpopular government is going to do," BBH analysts led by Win Thin said in a research note.
"The knee-jerk reaction would more likely be to boost spending and handouts, which would pressure the country's ratings," they added.
BBH's base case is that South Africa will be downgraded to sub-investment — or "junk" — grade by one of the big-three credit ratings agencies by the end of the year.
At present, Fitch Ratings rates South Africa at BBB-, one notch above sub-investment grade.
Jan Friederich, senior director of sovereigns at Fitch, concurred that the election result would increase the risk of populist policies and said it might also weaken President Jacob Zuma's position within his own party.
"Increased in-fighting within the ANC could divert political energies from policy-making and we think it most likely that the national government will continue without major changes to policies. This would entail no substantial progress on structural reforms that could accelerate sluggish trend growth, but also no measures that could seriously threaten fiscal sustainability," Friederich said in a report on Friday.
On Monday, the South African Treasury said in a statement seen by Reuters that it had noted the concerns from ratings agencies but remained committed to reforming the economy and "returning public finances to a sustainable path."
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