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South Africa court rules in favor of overseas balloting

High Court's decision that citizens abroad be allowed to vote will now be taken up by the Constitutional Court. If upheld, it could lead to an erosion of the ANC's large parliamentary majority.

February 10, 2009|Robyn Dixon

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — South Africans living abroad should get the right to vote, the High Court ruled Monday, a decision that, if upheld, could have profound implications for the fate of the nation's leadership.

The country's president-in-waiting, ruling African National Congress chief Jacob Zuma, is to go on trial on corruption charges in August. The ANC needs to keep its two-thirds parliamentary majority in coming elections in order to change the constitution so Zuma can avoid trial as president.

But if South Africans overseas are allowed to cast ballots, analysts said, the ANC could see its majority sink from 70% to below two-thirds, since many abroad are likely to favor opposition parties.

The ruling has to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court in coming weeks. If the judgment is upheld, it could delay the elections, which had been expected in April, because of the need for new electoral laws and registration of overseas voters.

In South Africa, prisoners have had the right to vote but most citizens overseas at election time haven't -- the opposite of many democracies, including most American states.

ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus said the party respected the court's decision, which had been forwarded to the Constitutional Court.

"Our position is very simple. We noted the court's decision and we respect the court's decision," he said in a phone interview.

South African voting rights have been narrowed since 1994 -- the year of its first free election -- when any overseas South African permanent resident could vote.

"It's been a remarkable phenomenon that this provision in the Electoral Act has not been challenged before this," Tim Hughes, an analyst with the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, said in a phone interview. "Effectively our franchise has been narrowed since 1994."

Susan Booysens, a political analyst at the University of Witwatersrand, said the constitution is clear that every adult citizen has the right to vote. But South African electoral law says only certain categories of South Africans overseas may vote -- government officials, for example.

"It's a very positive judgment because in terms of what is in the constitution, all South Africans should have the right to vote. The constitution is very explicit," she said in a phone interview.

Although it's unclear how many South Africans live abroad and would be eligible to vote, some estimates put the number in Britain alone at 500,000 or more and suggest that many could also be residing elsewhere.

The High Court case was brought by the right-wing Afrikaner nationalist party, Freedom Front Plus. Another opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has a similar action before the courts.

The ruling comes as the ANC also faces an election challenge from a group of dissidents called the Congress of the People, which split from the party last year.

Pieter Mulder, leader of Freedom Front Plus, said in a phone interview that the party based its case on rulings giving prisoners the right to vote.

"I think it's quite an important moral victory on the principle that you can't take people's rights away. In 1994 everyone could vote when the ANC were in exile and our people were at home. Now that our people are abroad and the ANCs are back, they have changed the electoral laws," he said.

James Selfe of the Democratic Alliance said his party's court action was narrower, seeking the right to vote for South Africans overseas who are registered voters.

"One of our objectives is to bring the ANC under the two-thirds majority to engender some respect for the constitution which they currently don't seem to display," Selfe said.

Mulder said he thought that most overseas citizens who wished to vote were opposition supporters, "because a lot of them left the country because of government policies they opposed."

Analyst Hughes said the ANC could well lose its two-thirds majority.

"You could see a few hundreds of thousands of voters [voting] who would be almost by definition opposition because they're white, they're disaffected, because they're upwardly mobile," he said.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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