Port Elizabeth was tense last night as the ANC awaited the results of a crucial by-election that could put an opposition coalition in control of the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan council.

The ruling party took a severe knock in last year’s local government elections. An assault by the DA and COPE reduced its majority in the metro to 51.9%.

It was dealt a further blow by the death of three councillors in a car crash in January, leaving it with 60 seats in the council against the opposition’s 57. By-elections were called to fill the three vacancies.

Infighting in the ANC, the emergence of COPE and an aggressive supporter-recruitment campaign by the DA have diluted support for the ruling party in the metro. The three vacancies have made it difficult for the ANC-led council to take crucial decisions on the running of the city, an economic hub and a traditional ANC stronghold.

The ruling party is in control of all of the country’s major metros expect Cape Town, which is run by the DA.

Needing only a single ward to regain its slight majority, the ANC is expected to win the three vacant wards – New Brighton, Motherwell and Zwide – easily , despite a push by opposition parties .

DA leader Helen Zille and DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko have campaigned strongly in the Nelson Mandela metro for the past three weeks.

Zille said last year that her party would try to form a coalition to run the metro if the ANC came in at under 50%.

The ANC has dispatched senior provincial leaders – including Eastern Cape local government MEC Mlibo Qhoboshiyane – to the vacant wards in a bid to garner support.

ANC regional secretary Zandisile Qupe said: “It is a must for our organisation to win these elections. Currently our majority is in a state where we can’t take decisions regarding council matters. If we lose, the opposition will be strengthened and we would have to negotiate with smaller opposition parties if we want to make any decisions in the metro.

“However, we are confident that we will be pronounced winners in this election.”

DA MPL Bobby Stevenson said that even if his party did not wrest control of the metro from the ANC it expected to increase its support in the contested wards, which would enable it to put even more pressure on the ANC in the council.

“In 2011, the DA got 40.1% and the ANC 51.92%. In these particular wards, we got 1.5%. The issue is not who wins the ward but what percentage the DA is going to get. Any slight increase we get will mean the ANC is going to lose its majority in the 2014 election. We are confident we will improve on the percentage we got in the 2011 election.”

COPE regional chairman Mzwandile Hote said: “We have fielded candidates who are well known in these wards. Even if we lose we know that the ANC’s majority is going to be cut.”

UDM provincial chairman Mongameli Bobani said: “The ANC’s arrogance in these elections is totally unacceptable.”

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