JOHANNESBURG, Nov 26 (Reuters) South African politician Jacob Zuma has made gains in the race to lead the ruling ANC, winning wide support from most of the party's influential regional branches, local media said today.
The party's nine provincial branches made their nominations this weekend less than a month before the party chooses a new leader, who is all but certain to become the country's next president in 2009.
ANC spokesman Tiyani Rikhotso said the party had not received official nomination results. But South African media said Zuma was way ahead.
702 Talk Radio said that Zuma had won the nomination of five provinces while Mbeki captured four. Zuma secured 2,270 votes while 1,396 went to Mbeki, it said.
Branch nominations are an important indicator of who may be ahead, but the race could take an unexpected turn if senior delegates disagree with branches in a secret ballot.
Zuma has been dogged by corruption allegations but enjoys wide backing from trade unions, who are opposed to the economic policies of his rival, state and party president Thabo Mbeki.
Some members of South Africa's business community fear Zuma's close association with left-leaning unions may steer him away from policies which have helped turn the country into an economic powerhouse.
The ANC deputy president has held a series of meetings with investors to try to ease their concerns.
Mbeki has sustained an economic boom but critics say he has undermined democracy after decades of apartheid by stifling dissent and promoting a culture of cronyism. He denies this.
The ANC has an electoral stranglehold on South African politics so whoever is chosen as the leader at a December. 16-20 party conference is virtually assured the national presidency.
Mbeki cannot serve another term as South African president but analysts say he is fighting to stay on as party leader to try to choose a successor and remain influential in politics.
Zuma could be recharged for alleged bribery and fraud in an arms corruption scandal. He was acquitted in an unrelated rape trial that tarnished his reputation.
Analysts say any new legal moves against Zuma could make him a martyr among supporters, who say he is the victim of a political witch hunt.
Speculation has emerged that the rivalry between Mbeki and Zuma, which has plunged the party into one of the worst crises in its history, could force a compromise candidate.
In another scenario cited by analysts, the ANC could hold off on choosing a new leader next month to try to ease divisions that have overshadowed issues such as widespread poverty, AIDS and one of the world's highest crime rates.
But Zuma and Mbeki show no signs of backing down.
REUTERS PD RK1524