The South African Parliament’s No-Confidence Vote: America’s Turn?

In alphabetical order, parliamentarians pick up ballots and go to booths to mark secret ballots in the August 8 no confidence
In alphabetical order, parliamentarians pick up ballots and go to booths to mark secret ballots in the August 8 no confidence vote.
Secret ballots are counted in the presence of party representatives and the Speaker
Secret ballots are counted in the presence of party representatives and the Speaker

Seven times the Parliament of South Africa had voted on a motion of no-confidence in President Jacob Zuma. And seven times—predictably—the motion was defeated. The eighth time was different. With the blessing of the Constitutional Court, the Speaker of the House announced on Monday, August 7 that the vote on the following day would be by secret ballot.

This extraordinary move, vigorously debated by my South African friends on social media, seemed to fly in the face of the democratic principle of transparency. Despite assurances to the contrary, it threatened to set a dangerous precedent in a country with a 23-year young democracy. But a climate of harassment and violence—including death threats received by a parliamentarian from the President’s own party who dared suggest that a secret ballot would allow legislators to vote their conscience—led to Speaker Mbete’s surprise decision.

As someone who had watched from the gallery several times during parliamentary deliberations and votes, August 8 was impressive. The heated debate, punctuated by numerous points of order, was par for the course. But when, after a pause in the proceedings, four large voting booths and two ballot boxes were arranged in the well, any similarity to anything that had ever taken place in that room ended.

The doors were locked. The ballot boxes were displayed with a flourish in much the same way a magician shows that the top hat is empty. Parliamentary staff took turns reading the list of 400 names in alphabetical order. Parliamentarians took their paper ballots—printed with ‘yes’ ‘no’ and ‘abstain’—into the booth, made their mark, and deposited the folded papers into the boxes.

The booths were removed, and the counting table set up in the center of the well, tightly surrounded by the Speaker and a representative of each party. Even before the results were announced, members of the African National Congress (ANC)—President Zuma’s party—began singing and dancing on the floor. The result: 198 opposed; 177 in favor; and 9 abstentions meant that President Zuma lived to fight another day. But it also meant that about 35 ANC members voted ‘no confidence’ in the leader of their party, an extraordinary move in a system where party loyalty is mandated.

As an American I could not help but wonder what a vote of ‘no confidence’ in President Donald Trump would look like in the U.S. Senate. Although party loyalty is not mandated under our representative system of government, in recent years Republicans have—with few exceptions—voted lock-step with their party leader. They’ve even NOT voted in lock-step. Perhaps the best example of this was their absolute refusal to allow for even a committee debate on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.

When three Republicans dared put the interests of their constituents above party loyalty by opposing an ill-conceived, rough draft health care bill that threatened to raise insurance rates and leave millions without health care, they were excoriated by the Republican media machine and threatened with dire retaliation by the President, among others. The health care vote was in the open and transparent but there’s reasonable speculation that behind-the-scenes threats and wealthy PACS and political donors successfully pressured some of those Republicans who had been sitting on the fence.

Watching South African parliamentarians mark their secret ballots led me to fantasize about what it might be like if the U.S. Senate similarly voted on a ‘no confidence’ motion on President Trump. Of course our Congress is not a parliament, and no confidence is an impossible non-starter when it comes to the president.

But maybe there are other votes that might serve to gauge the legislature’s ‘confidence’ in the chief executive?

What if the Senate used a secret ballot to vote the next time President Trump nominates an intemperate, inexperienced extremist (for example John K. Bush, among others) to a life-time seat on a federal court? After all, confirming a Trump nominee carefully vetted for judicial views that align with those held by him and others calling the shots in the White House only serves to enshrine those views well into the future.

What if the health care vote had been by secret ballot? Frustrating though it would be for those of us who fiercely advocated our point of view with the senators who represent us, I can’t help but wonder if there would have been more Republicans voting their conscience without worrying about getting punished by the President and Senate Majority Leader (which certainly seems to be more frightening than the possibility of losing support from voters at home).

I don’t expect to ever see voting booths installed in the U.S. Senate in my lifetime and, fantasy aside, that’s a relief.

The August 8 secret ballot exercise did not by any means end the effort to remove South Africa’s President whose corruption and “derelict leadership” are a continuing and dangerous drama with new revelations daily.

Unlike the South African parliament, the U.S. Congress has only dipped its toe in a process that may lead to the end of an American President whose corruption and derelict leadership are a continuing dangerous drama with new revelations daily.

As they say in both countries—stay tuned.