South Africa’s new Congress of the People (COPE), seen as the first party to challenge the ruling African National Congress (ANC), has chosen Methodist bishop Mvume Dandala as its presidential candidate for the April election.
COPE, formed by dissidents from the ANC in December, said on Friday that Dandala had been nominated by party structures throughout South Africa.
The April 22 parliamentary election is expected to be the most closely contested since apartheid ended in 1994.
The ANC, in power since then, is widely expected to win the election and make party leader Jacob Zuma president despite a renewed graft case that has dogged him for years. But COPE has vowed to break its dominance.
Dandala, 57, could appeal to South Africans who have grown tired of corruption scandals in the ANC and of the party’s record on crime, poverty and the AIDS epidemic. Church leaders have influence in Africa, where religious faith is strong.
“South Africa needs an honest, trustworthy and highly skilled leader, someone who can restore to our people hope and belief in our country,” COPE said in a statement. “We need a leader we can look up to and respect, a leader who can inspire South Africans to take our nation from being a good one to a great one.”
Dandala played a role mediating an end to violence in the lead up to democracy in South Africa. Dandala was also involved in peace talks in Kenya early last year, following that country’s post-election violence.
Aubrey Matshiqi of South Africa’s Centre for Policy Studies said it appeared COPE was playing the morality card. But it could suggest there will be power struggles in the party and Dandala will serve as a compromise candidate to ease divisions.
“This shows that they are committed to keeping the party together,” he said.
COPE could break the ANC’s two-thirds majority in parliament, endings its ability to pass constitutional changes.
COPE was formed by disgruntled senior officials in the ANC after the party pushed Zuma’s rival, Thabo Mbeki, out of the presidency. COPE had been led by former defense minister Mosiuoa Lekota and the party’s deputy president, Mbhazima Shilowa.
The leaders are seen as less inclined to be influenced by trade unions and the Communist Party that support Zuma — an alliance that has troubled investors in Africa’s biggest economy — but have made similar vague promises on fighting poverty.
In a major boost to the ANC, former South African president Nelson Mandela appeared at an election campaign event with Zuma, support that could hurt COPE’s chances.
Meanwhile, Mandela’s surprise appearance at the ANC campaign rally did not mean the 90-year-old former president was coming out of retirement, his office said on Friday.
Some South Africans have accused the governing ANC of exploiting Mandela out of fear that scandals surrounding Zuma and other leaders would hurt it in April 22 elections.
Mandela addressed the rally briefly before ending with a salute to the party he has described in his autobiography as “the great umbrella under which all Africans could find shelter.”