GAUTENG and Eastern Cape African National Congress (ANC) branches emerged last week as the strongest power brokers in the contest for the ANC's top posts, scoring a psychological victory ahead of leadership nominations.

The provinces will have the second and third-largest representation at the ANC's electoral conference in Mangaung later this year, and have been linked to calls for leadership change in the party.

This could mean that President Jacob Zuma's bid for re-election could face a serious challenge, despite expectations that KwaZulu-Natal - which will send the largest number of delegates - will throw its support behind Mr Zuma.

ANC KwaZulu-Natal secretary Sihle Zikalala said on the sidelines of the policy conference last week that while his province had the numbers, there was a risk that it could be "marginalised" if it pushed its views without seeking broader consensus with other provinces.

Sources in the ANC said Gauteng and the Eastern Cape had turned the tables on KwaZulu-Natal, with most of their proposals favoured and adopted by the other provincial delegations, including KwaZulu-Natal.

Mr Zikalala said yesterday that while KwaZulu-Natal was the largest province, it would not use numbers to impose its ideas on other provinces. " All provinces and structures of the organisation must strive to find each other going to Mangaung," he said.

However, a youth league national executive committee member, who did not wish to be named, said KwaZulu-Natal had realised that a large number of delegates did not mean victory because other provinces were needed.

ANC Eastern Cape spokesman Mlibo Qoboshiyane said the province would be united. "Going to Mangaung, we will be fighting against anything that will divide us," he said. Those who would see Mr Zuma replaced said they had the backing of most regions in the Eastern Cape. Gauteng ANC spokesman Nkenke Kekana said there were no kingmakers in the ANC; " the power rests in branches".

ANC sources said they expected its national executive committee to push the nomination ahead to next month, amid criticism that the official opening date in October did not allow enough time for branches to lobby for preferred leaders.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said it was "practically impossible" to bring the nominations forward because next month the party would still be dealing with branch audits. "Nominations cannot be opened before branches are audited," he said. Mr Mthembu said there was no resolution at the policy conference to change the date.