South African Opposition Urges Secret Ballot on Zuma Vote

(Bloomberg) -- South African opposition party lawyers urged the nation’s top court to order parliament to hold a secret vote on a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma.

“The real thing that all South Africans what to know is whether the president still enjoys the confidence of the majority of members of parliament; that is all,” Dali Mpofu, a lawyer for the opposition United Democratic Movement, which brought the case, told the court in Johannesburg on Monday. “We are going on the primary argument that a secret ballot is required. This is a very important matter for our democracy.”

Opposition parties filed the no-confidence motion in Zuma, 75, last month after his decision to fire Pravin Gordhan as finance minister prompted S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings Ltd. to cut the nation’s credit rating to junk. The case came to the Constitutional Court after parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete rejected their argument that since parliament chooses the president by secret ballot, it should also be able to use it to remove him.

ANC leaders have said that members of parliament must vote according to the wishes of the party that elected them rather than the constituents they represent. Under South Africa’s electoral system, lawmakers are chosen by their party rather than directly by voters.

The National Assembly must decide whether to hold a secret ballot, Marumo Moerane, Mbete’s lawyer, told the court.

“The constitution itself effectively interpreted leaves the discretion of this matter to the Natonal Assembly, Moerane said. “We submit that if the constitution requires that a motion of no confidence take place in a secret ballot, it is up to the National Assembly to say so.”

The court reserved judgment in the case. In a ruling last year, the Western Cape High Court dismissed an application that sought to force the National Assembly to hold secret votes on no-confidence motions.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said the removal of the president is a very serious decision with the potential to destabilize the country and questioned whether a secret ballot is in the nation’s best interests. 

“Should you not be open now, as a person making a decision with such dramatic consequences?” Mogoeng said. “Why should you hide? Should we not see you, precisely because it is something so serious.”

Despite growing dissatisfaction with Zuma’s leadership in the ruling African National Congress, which holds a 62 percent majority in parliament, the party’s leadership has rejected all opposition-led attempts to remove him. ANC lawmakers are unlikely to vote against Zuma in an open ballot, because they will fear losing their jobs, according to the opposition.

“There is no counter to the argument that members of parliament are entitled to vote according to their conscience,” said Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, a lawyer for the economic Freedom Fighters, the second-biggest opposition party. “The only way that the MPs can be protected in a manner that enables them to vote according to their conscience is a secret ballot.”

Zuma is due to step down as ANC leader in December and as president in 2019.

“ANC members of parliament will have to choose between what is best for themselves and what is best for South Africa,” Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, told reporters outside the courthouse. “ANC members of parliament should not need a secret ballot to do the right thing.”