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JOHANNESBURG/CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's top court ruled on Thursday that secret ballots may be held for motions of no confidence in parliament, a potential blow to the tenure of beleaguered President Jacob Zuma who said such a vote would be unfair.
The court's ruling by no means guarantees a secret ballot will be held, however. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said whether a secret ballot actually takes places is up to the Speaker of parliament.
But it ended any question about whether a secret ballot on Zuma could take place.
Zuma's critics want the no-confidence vote to be anonymous hoping it will embolden lawmakers from his African National Congress (ANC) party to support his ouster by shielding them from pressure.
His administration has been beset by scandals and criticised for failing to address serious economic problems.
"I think it is not fair because you are trying to increase the majority you don't have," Zuma told parliament after the court decision.
Zuma has survived four no-confidence votes during his eight years in power thanks to loyal voting by 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 have angered ANC MPs sufficiently to desert Zuma.
Speaker Baleka Mbete, a top ANC official who now must decide the issue, had said secret ballots were not allowed under parliamentary rules. She was non-commital after the ruling, simply noting that she now had the right to decide.
In handing down a unanimous ruling by the full bench, Mogoeng, the chief justice, said a vote in parliament should not be "a fear or money-inspired sham" and the Speaker should 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.".
The ANC -- once all-powerful as heir of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle -- has lost popularity under Zuma, underscored by its worst electoral showing in over two decades of power in local elections last year.
South Africa has sunk into recession and had its credit rating downgraded to junk by two of the top three credit rating agencies. Unemployment is at a 14-year high of 27.7 percent.
"I'm fit and I'm doing it (the job of president) very well," Zuma said in response to a call by a lawmaker that he stand down as president.
He said the economy would come out of recession "quicker than we believe".
One ANC lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in a secret ballot they would vote for Zuma's removal. "I would vote for him to go. He is ruining the country," the legislator told Reuters.
A member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), one of the ANC's allies in power, told Reuters he "would be guided by what the Communist Party has said about the president". The SACP, which has 17 lawmakers, said in April Zuma should resign.
The party said in a statement on Thursday that "the Court went further in reminding MPs, all MPs regardless of their political party, that their oath of office is to the people of South Africa and not to a political party".
The main opposition Democratic Alliance party said Mbete, the Speaker, now would have little choice but to call for a secret ballot.
"I think it's a great day for democracy for South Africa. I think the Speaker will be very hard pressed indeed to deny a secret ballot in this particular case," said the party's Federal Executive Chairperson James Selfe.
The ANC rallied behind Zuma, however, saying 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.
"We have unqualified and unequivocal confidence in the ANC caucus not to vote in support of a motion to remove the president," ANC's parliamentary chief whip Jackson Mthembu said.
Zuma has suffered a string of judicial setbacks, but has held on to power with the backing of his party.
Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt