THE state of democracy around the world is currently the subject of intense debate. Last week, we received an update from South Africa, one of the shining examples of the democratic openings that swept the globe in the 1990s. While the country’s democracy took an important step forward, it may have taken a step backward as well.

Let’s start with the good news. While the May 8 election marked 25 years of continuous democracy since its historic April 27, 1994, election, South Africa’s new democratic system has been dominated by the former liberation movement, African National Congress (ANC). Because the ANC has never controlled fewer than 62% of the members of legislature, analysts have worried that its voters were oblivious to the quality of government performance, allowing the party to rule with impunity.

But with the country reeling from waves of electricity outages, rising prices and continuing revelations of corruption and damage done to state parastatals – companies and organisations owned by the government with some political power – during the previous government of Jacob Zuma, the situation was ripe for a massive repudiation of the governing ANC.

In a normal, competitive democracy, one might have expected the ANC to be thrown out of office. Yet while the ANC handily won re-election, the fact that it won “only” 57% of the vote (with 90% of the vote counted) must be seen as a step in the right direction for South African democracy. Not only will this be the first time that more than four in 10 members of the national legislature represent opposition parties, but the ANC may have lost outright control of the provincial government in Gauteng, the country’s industrial heartland.

This also represents the third consecutive election where the ANC has surrendered seats in the national assembly, culminating in the loss of more than 50 seats (and handsome parliamentary salaries) since 2004, as well as dozens more across the country’s nine provincial assemblies.

Now to the bad news. In 1994, virtually everyone who could turned out to vote, famously waiting sometimes for hours in long snake-like queues to exercise their long-awaited franchise. While there was no voters’ roll in that first election, the most conservative estimates put turnout at 86% of all eligible voters.

Flash forward to this past Wednesday, when just 65% of registered voters participated. With just three-quarters of all South Africans registered, actual voter turnout stands at around 49% of voting age population, down sharply from the last three elections, where turnout averaged 57% to 59%.

Many democracies – notably the US – suffer from low voter turnout. Yet turnout in South Africa is especially low. Consider, for example, that American voters are asked to vote relatively frequently and presented with a bewildering array of ballot choices compared with South Africa’s voters, who are asked to make no more than two choices every five years between competing party labels for national and provincial government.

Indeed, the best cross-national evidence strongly suggests that the country’s levels of voter turnout are closely linked to the ANC’s electoral dominance. Holding other things constant, voter turnout in a country with South Africa’s age of democracy and type of electoral system should fall in the range of 69% to 70%; South Africa’s level of economic development should also produce a 64% turnout. However, countries where the winning party regularly receives over 60% of the vote, as has the ANC until now, have significantly lower levels of average turnout.

Thus, on the eve of this election, eight in 10 voters told survey researchers that corruption was increasing, and just one in five said the country was headed in the right direction. Yet many dissatisfied voters felt they had no real alternative.

To the political right of the ANC, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has been a steadfast defender of liberal values and the rule of law. But with its roots in the old apartheid political system, many voters see the party’s defence of individual liberties and a market economy as a defence of white privilege.

Indeed, while it is now headed by a dynamic black leader, Mmusi Maimane, the majority of the parliamentary candidates it presented to the national electorate last week were still white.

To the ANC’s left lies the radical and populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). It attracts support among poor, landless black voters, as well as among younger black voters, yet its inflammatory rhetoric and obstructionist antics in parliament fail to resonate with the vast majority of voters.

It should also be noted that the ANC’s reduced vote totals may portend a different piece of bad news. Since assuming the presidency upon the resignation of Jacob Zuma in February 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa has taken bold moves in reshuffling the Cabinet, cleaning up the leadership of many of the state parastatals, and launching a far-reaching commission of inquiry into the capture of key bureaucracies and state tenders by Zuma’s cronies and personal financiers, while government prosecutors re-introduced corruption charges against the former president.

Yet many who benefited from the rampant corruption of the Zuma years are still present. This is because Ramaphosa won the party presidency in December 2017 by a razor-thin margin over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former president’s ex-wife and favoured successor. Candidates allied with the Zuma camp took three of the top six party positions, and just under half of the seats in the top party decision-making structures.

A decisive victory, securing more than 60% of the vote, might have clearly established Ramaphosa’s leadership and consolidated his power base within the party. But with the worst performance in the party’s history, his opponents may be emboldened to force him out as party president (and therefore as state president) at the earliest possible moment.

With Zuma’s corruption trial due to begin on May 20, the country’s reform agenda may hang in the balance.

Robert Mattes is Professor of Government and Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, and Honorary Professor at the University of Cape Town