South Africa's top court ruled on Thursday that the speaker of parliament can order a secret ballot for no-confidence motions, an outcome the opposition hopes would embolden African National Congress MPs to rebel and depose scandal-plagued President Jacob Zuma.
However, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng stopped short of ordering a secret ballot, saying it would be a violation of the separation of powers between the Constitutional Court and parliament.
Zuma has survived four no-confidence votes during his eight years in power thanks to loyal voting by African National Congress (ANC) lawmakers, who form a strong parliamentary majority.
But opposition parties believe a recent cabinet reshuffle that led to the dismissal of respected Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and a slew of credit rating downgrades may have angered ANC MPs sufficiently to desert Zuma.
Speaker Baleka Mbete, a top ANC official, had said parliamentary rules did not allow for a secret ballot but Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng disagreed, saying she had "the necessary latitude".
In a unanimous ruling by the full bench, he said a vote in parliament should not be "a fear or money-inspired sham", and urged the Speaker to consider the interests of the country, rather than party, when deciding the nature of the vote.
"Crass dishonesty in the form of bribe-taking or other illegitimate methods of gaining undeserved majorities must not be discounted from the Speaker's decision process," he said.
"When that happens in a motion of no-confidence, the outcome could betray the people's interests."
After the ruling, the rand pared its gains to 0.5 percent against the dollar from one percent earlier. The currency had firmed on hopes Mogoeng would order, rather than simply permit, a secret vote.
The ANC has said it will vote against the motion to remove the 75-year-old leader. A successful vote of no-confidence would trigger the collapse of Zuma's government.