When South Africa's election results are expected and why the president will be chosen later

South Africans have voted in a national election that could be the country’s most hotly contested in 30 years
A voter fills out a ballot paper during general elections in Nkandla, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, Wednesday May 29, 2024. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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A voter fills out a ballot paper during general elections in Nkandla, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, Wednesday May 29, 2024. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South Africa held a national election Wednesday that could be the country's most hotly contested in 30 years, with the long-ruling African National Congress party facing a stern test to hold onto its majority.

The ANC has been the majority party and in government ever since the end of South Africa's apartheid system of white minority rule and the establishment of democracy in 1994 and has held the presidency since then.

Under the South African political system, people vote for parties and not directly for the president in their national elections. The two processes are separate, even though they are linked: Voters choose parties to decide the makeup of Parliament and lawmakers then elect the president.

Here's a guide to the main election in Africa's most advanced country and why it might be complicated this time for Parliament to choose the president.

ELECTION

The election took place on just one day, with polls opening at 7 a.m. and closing at 9 p.m. across the country of 62 million people, which has nine provinces. Nearly 28 million South Africans were registered to vote to decide the makeup of their national as well as provincial legislatures.

South Africans can choose parties, or for the first time independent candidates, to go to Parliament. Parties get seats in Parliament according to their share of the vote.

Counting starts immediately after the polls close and the final results are expected by Sunday, according to the independent electoral commission that runs the election.

CHOOSING A PRESIDENT

The president is elected in Parliament after the national vote's results are announced. South Africa's Parliament has two houses and it's the lower house, or National Assembly, that chooses the president.

There, the 400 lawmakers vote for one of them to be the head of state and it needs a simple majority of 201. Because the ANC has always had a parliamentary majority since 1994, every president since then has been from the ANC, starting with Nelson Mandela.

WHY THIS YEAR COULD BE HISTORIC

It has been almost procedural over the last three decades for the ANC to use its parliamentary majority to elect its leader as president of the country. This year may not be so simple.

Several polls have the ANC's support at less than 50% ahead of the election, raising the possibility that it might not have a parliamentary majority. It is still widely expected to be the biggest party, but if it goes below 50% it would then need an agreement or coalition with another party or parties to stay in government and get the 201 votes it needs from lawmakers to reelect President Cyril Ramaphosa for a second and final five-year term.

The new Parliament must meet for its first session within 14 days of the election results being announced to choose the president. Should the ANC lose its majority, there would likely be a feverish period of bargaining between it and other parties to form some sort of coalition before Parliament sits.

It's possible that several opposition parties could join together to oust the ANC completely from government and Ramaphosa as president if they don't have a majority. That's a very remote possibility, though, considering the two biggest opposition parties — the centrist Democratic Alliance and the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters — are as critical of each other as they are of the ANC and are seen as unlikely to work together. The DA is part of a pre-election agreement to join forces with other smaller parties, excluding the EFF, in a coalition but they would all have to increase their vote considerably to overtake the ANC.

The ANC has given no indication of who it might work with if South Africa needs an unprecedented national coalition government. Ramaphosa said Wednesday after voting that he was confident the ANC would win an outright majority.

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AP Africa news: https://apnews.com/hub/africa

A woman is marked on her hand after casting her ballot on Wednesday May 29, 2024 during general elections in Nkandla, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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Voters line up to cast their ballot for general elections in Alexandra, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. South Africans began voting Wednesday in an election seen as their country’s most important in 30 years, and one that could put their young democracy in unknown territory. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

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A woman casts her ballot at a polling station, during general elections in Eshowe, South Africa, Wednesday May 29, 2024. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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People queue to cast their votes at a polling station during general elections, in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. South Africans have begun voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put their young democracy in unknown territory. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

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Voters line up to cast their ballot for general election in Alexandra, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

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Women wait to cast their ballots on Wednesday May 29, 2024 during general elections in Nkandla, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa casts his ballot Wednesday May 29, 2024 for the general elections in Soweto, South Africa. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

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Democratic Alliance (DA) leader John Steenhuisen, casts his ballot at a polling station in Durban, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. South Africans have begun voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put their young democracy in unknown territory. (AP Photo/Str)

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An officer watches on as an inmate inserts his ballot paper into the ballot box at the polling station at Kgoši Mampuru Correctional Facility in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. South Africans voted Wednesday at schools, community centers, and in large white tents set up in open fields in an election seen as their country’s most important in 30 years. It could put the young democracy in unknown territory.(AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

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Voters wait outside a poling station on Wednesday May 29, 2024, during general elections in KwaMfana, South Africa. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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A woman casts her ballot on Wednesday May 29, 2024, during general elections in KwaMfana, South Africa. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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A woman casts her ballot on Wednesday May 29, 2024, during general elections in KwaMfana, South Africa. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people — half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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Former president of the A.N.C. and South Africa, Jacob Zuma, casts his vote in Nkandla, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024 during the general elections. South Africans are voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put them in unknown territory in the short history of their democracy, the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress party being the target of a new generation of discontent in a country of 62 million people. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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Opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema, casts his vote at a polling station in Polokwane, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. South Africans have begun voting in an election seen as their country's most important in 30 years, and one that could put their young democracy in unknown territory. (AP Photo)

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People queue after dark to cast their votes at a polling station in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. South Africans voted Wednesday at schools, community centers, and in large white tents set up in open fields in an election seen as their country’s most important since apartheid ended 30 years ago. It could put the young democracy into unknown territory. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

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