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In this Feb. 6, 2018, file photo, South African President Jacob Zuma, left, waves as he leaves parliament in Cape Town, South Africa.

AP Photo

President Jacob Zuma is defying the orders of his own ruling party, demanding several more months in power as South Africans await the outcome of an escalating clash at the highest levels of their political elite.

The African National Congress, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid, announced on Tuesday that it has told Mr. Zuma to resign "with urgency" because of the "uncertainty and anxiety" in the country over the transition to his heir apparent, ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa.

The ANC says it expects Mr. Zuma to respond by Wednesday. If he refuses to resign, the ANC is willing to join opposition parties in forcing his removal with a vote of non-confidence in Parliament. Meetings of parliamentary party officials have already been scheduled for Wednesday morning to discuss this.

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The decision to order Mr. Zuma's resignation came after a marathon 13-hour meeting of the ANC's national executive, which finally ended at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning. About two-thirds of the executive's 86 members voiced their support for Mr. Zuma's resignation, including many who were previously seen as his loyal supporters, reports say.

The ANC disclosed on Tuesday that Mr. Zuma is seeking an additional three to six months in power. At a late-night meeting with ANC leaders on Monday night, he argued that he has obligations on the international stage over the next several months, including meetings with the BRICS bloc of countries, which includes Russia and China.

South Africa's ruling party says scandal-plagued President Jacob Zuma has agreed to resign in principle. Reuters

But the ANC rejects this argument. "The economic and social challenges facing the country require urgent and resolute response by all sections of society," ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule told a press conference on Tuesday at the party's headquarters. "We are determined to restore the integrity of public institutions, create political stability and urgent economic recovery."

He did not set any deadline for Mr. Zuma to respond to the order to resign, and said negotiations could continue, but made it clear that a non-confidence vote is looming in the near future if Mr. Zuma ignores the party's decision. "All necessary parliamentary processes that arise from this decision will now ensue," he said.

Under the presidency of Mr. Zuma for the past nine years, South Africa's economy has stagnated, with per-capita income declining in recent years. The ANC has been riddled with corruption scandals, including mounting evidence that Mr. Zuma's family has profited from its close association with the wealthy Gupta brothers, who have allegedly bribed officials and even controlled cabinet appointments.

Mr. Zuma's term was scheduled to expire in mid-2019, but the party is increasingly desperate to get rid of him, especially after his unpopularity led to opposition victories in some of the country's biggest cities in 2016.

In December, the ANC elected Mr. Ramaphosa as its new leader, defeating Mr. Zuma's chosen successor in a vote at a national conference. On Feb. 4, the party's top six leaders met Mr. Zuma and asked him to resign, but he refused.

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This led to several days of negotiations, aimed at persuading him to step down. Mr. Ramaphosa said the negotiations last week were "fruitful and constructive," but they led nowhere. Reports said Mr. Zuma was demanding immunity from criminal prosecution, or at least a guarantee that the government would pay his legal bills.

Confronted by Mr. Zuma's defiance, Mr. Ramaphosa has moved carefully and methodically, insisting that the President must be treated with "dignity" and the negotiations must not "humiliate" him. He knows that Mr. Zuma has strong support in some parts of the country, especially among the Zulu-speaking population, and there is a risk that he could split the ANC and form a breakaway party if he is able to portray himself as a victim of unfair treatment.

But if he refuses to step down, Mr. Zuma faces the near certainty of defeat in Parliament. There are two ways to remove him: a decision to impeach him for "serious misconduct" – which would require the support of two-thirds of the 400 members of Parliament – or a simple motion of non-confidence, which requires only a majority of the 400 MPs. The latter is most likely.

Even if the ANC caucus is divided and some MPs are absent, a non-confidence vote would win approval if it is supported by just half of the ANC caucus, plus the two biggest opposition parties.

The ANC's decision to seek his resignation "has no effect on Jacob Zuma's current status as President of the Republic, and can be simply ignored by Zuma," said Mmusi Maimane, leader of the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, one of several parties that are pushing for a non-confidence vote.

"It is Parliament that elects and removes a President, not the ANC," he said.

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The ANC, in fact, seems to have an ambivalent view of Mr. Zuma. It has protected him from opposition attacks in the past, and it refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing by him.

Mr. Magashule said the ANC did not make its decision to seek his resignation because of any misconduct by Mr. Zuma. "President Zuma has not been found guilty by any court of law," he said. "We still believe in Jacob Zuma as our leader."

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