In South Africa on Monday, the Constitutional Court heard arguments on whether the upcoming parliamentary vote of no-confidence against President Jacob Zuma should be a secret ballot. The court’s ruling could have political consequences.
Lawyers representing the opposition parties argued in favor of their petition before a full bench of the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg.
“The core submission is that the function of the court is to create conditions in which members of the National Assembly can carry out their constitutional duty of oversight and that the only way to create that condition is to allow a secret ballot,” said Geoff Budlender, a legal representative of the opposition. “The fear is that if there is an open ballot, you will be expelled from the party and expelled from parliament through that mechanism. That is why there needs to be a secret ballot.”
Lawyers representing President Jacob Zuma and the speaker of parliament countered that no-confidence votes have never taken place in secret. They argued the constitution does not allow the courts to tell parliament how to conduct its business.
Outside the court, members of other opposition parties, civil society organizations, and religious groups demonstrated in support of a secret ballot.
Zuma has faced mounting criticism following several corruption scandals in the past year and a controversial Cabinet reorganization last month. Members of his ruling coalition have been among those calling on him to step down.
While the questions before the Constitutional Court are legal, the stakes are highly political.
The opposition needs to garner a two-thirds majority in parliament to vote Zuma out. To get it, the opposition would need some ANC lawmakers to break ranks.
The ruling African National Congress has already instructed its MPs to back Zuma.
Speaking to reporters last month, ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe said a secret ballot will not change the way the ANC lawmakers vote.
“There will be no ANC member who will vote in either way for a motion of the opposition. We are members of the ANC in a party political system and we will not vote against the ANC,” said Mantashe.
Once the court delivers its judgment on how the vote can be conducted, parliament is expected to set a date to consider the motion of no confidence. Zuma’s second elected mandate does not expire until 2019.