If obituaries were written for political parties, perhaps something a like this would have appeared in newspapers here today:

South Africa's New National Party -- formerly the National Party, which ruled over a white-dominated society for nearly 50 years -- died June 2 in a collision between its ugly past and uncertain future.

If voters in South Africa's first democratic, all-races election five years ago killed apartheid, then voters Wednesday might have finished off the party that created it.

After finishing second to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress with 20.5 percent of the ballots cast in 1994, the New National Party -- or Nats, as they are called here -- could muster only 7.35 percent of the vote in Wednesday's election. That left the party a distant fourth behind the ANC's 66.5 percent, with 4 percent of the vote still to be counted. Final, official results are not expected until Sunday.

The New National Party's surprisingly meager showing has turned the conversation away from the ANC's unsurprising landslide triumph to what many believe is the sound of a historic party drawing its last breath.

"The story of this election is really the NNP's demise," said Vincent Maphai, a longtime political analyst here. "I think it's clear that this may be the end of 50 years of National Party politics."

If so, it's a complicated death. The joke in South Africa during the campaign season was that the Web site for the New National Party, despite its name change, should be baggage.com.

And certainly, the party's history played a role in what unfolded Wednesday. Founded by Afrikaners -- the descendants of South Africa's 17th-century Dutch and French settlers -- the National Party came to power in 1948, defeating the Union Party, which was dominated by the British. Promising to protect Afrikaners from "Jews, imperialists, communists and capitalists," the National Party engineered apartheid -- the most rigid system of legalized racial segregation in the modern era -- and for 46 years crushed any political party that tried to oppose it.

Pressured by international loathing and resistance by the country's black majority -- led by the outlawed ANC -- the National Party gradually agreed in the early '90s to open up the electoral process to all races, leading to the watershed 1994 election that put an end to apartheid. In doing so, political scientists say, the National Party sealed its own fate, as well.

"After that, really, there was no way for them to remain the same party, because everything they stood for collapsed," Maphai said.

Former president Frederik W. de Klerk, the National Party leader who opened the door to the reforms that dismantled apartheid, quit politics three years ago. The more conservative factions within the party have gradually drifted away, believing that the party had sold them out, or at the very least, was ineffective in opposition. Party leaders renamed the organization, and in the past five years it has tried to reposition itself more toward the middle of the political continuum..

That, political scientists believe, provided the New National Party's rival, the predominantly white Democratic Party, with an opening. By focusing their campaign on crime and corruption and using confrontational slogans like "The guts to fight back," the Democrats -- who supplied the only liberal voice against apartheid for 13 years -- have stolen much of the National Party's credentials as the party of white rage, or at least white outrage. They finished second, with 9.6 percent of the vote.

The Democratic Party "has established itself as the national defender of minority rights," said Shaun McKay, a political analyst with the Center for Policy Studies here. "I think what's happened is that the NNP has no experience as an opposition party and' [doesn't] know how to perform as one."

New National Party leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk characterized his party's effort as high-minded, if disappointing. "We consciously decided against the `fight back' approach because we realized that it was counterproductive," he told reporters.

Stories in newspapers here quoted unidentified party members as questioning the New National Party's existence after its dismal performance. Indeed, most everyone here seems resigned to a future without the party as South Africans have known it.

"I don't think anyone is wed to the National Party going on just for the sake of there being a National Party," said Sheila Camerer, a New National Party member in parliament. "It's a different South Africa and the opposition parties have to take the initiative to adjust."

CAPTION: Marthinus van Schalkwyk of the New National Party said his group decided against the white "fight back" approach taken up by the Democratic Party.