Leadership fight gathers steam

The gloves have yet to come off in the fight for the Wanita Umno leadership but the two key contenders have started to aim subtle jabs at each other.

The reason is that Shahrizat represents the Wanita wing which is dominated by mothers and grandmothers whereas Azalina is still largely associated as the first and most successful leader of Puteri Umno.

Joceline Tan,The Star

RIVALS for the Wanita Umno leadership Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil and Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said are only 10 years apart in age.

Wanita Umno chief Shahrizat will be 60 soon while Azalina, who is the Pengerang MP, will turn 50 in December.

They are both baby boomers, that generation of women who pioneered the break from the old cultural thinking about women’s place in society.

Yet, the Wanita Umno contest has begun to acquire shades of a tussle between two generations of women in Umno.

The reason is that Shahrizat represents the Wanita wing which is dominated by mothers and grandmothers whereas Azalina is still largely associated as the first and most successful leader of Puteri Umno.

As such, Shahrizat cannot be blamed if she views Azalina as the harbinger of views and ideas from another generation and she recently cautioned against a split in the “mother-and-daughter” ties in the women’s wing.

It is also evident that Shahrizat believes that Azalina has the backing of her old nemesis Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz.

She has said tongue-in-cheek that she welcomes “proxy candidates” sent by certain groups into the battleground.

The contest is gathering momentum now that it is likely to be a straight fight.

Azalina has taken to social media to put across her message of “youth transformation agenda”.

Her campaign on Facebook shows her in her capacity as the new chairman of Parliament’s Women’s Caucus.

Her latest Facebook posting reads: “Wanita Umno must act as a Platform for Women’s Democracy.”

Shahrizat has stuck to the old, time-tested way of reaching out directly to the women.

The last few days saw her allies coming out to voice support for her re-election.

She commands overwhelming support from her Wanita exco members, many of whom went on a break in London as well as an umrah in the Holy Land.

Several state Wanita Umno chiefs also issued statements of support for her. One of them was Johor’s Datuk Sharifah Azizah Syed Zain, who claimed that 98% of the Wanita members in Johor are staunchly behind Shahrizat.

That southern arrow was aimed at Azalina, who is from Johor, and it was to send the message that her own home state is not with her.

Another Shahrizat ally, Datuk Rosni Zahari, who is Pahang Wanita chief, went on to claim that 90% of the Wanita heads of Umno’s 191 divisions want Shahrizat to stay.

That is really impressive but, then again, all the state Wanita chiefs are appointed by Shahrizat and they could hardly be expected to say otherwise.

Nevertheless, the power of incumbency cannot be underestimated in Umno politics and Shahrizat definitely has the upper hand. She obviously has a plan and she is moving very confidently.

Azalina, on the other hand, is labouring under the perception that she is an “outsider” trying to rock the boat.

She does not have the network or the contacts that Shahrizat has cultivated over the years.

Moreover, as some have pointed out, she went straight from her Puteri leadership to become a division chief rather than a Wanita division chief.

But she has a few other things going for her. The first is that Puteri members are automatically absorbed into the Wanita wing after they reach the age of 35 and Azalina will have support from them. They adulate her and still call her “boss”.

Over the years, quite a number of these former Puteri grassroots leaders have become Wanita branch heads and they will be voting in the contest.

But Azalina’s problem is whether there are enough of them holding such positions to make a difference.

This group also resents the mother-versus-daughter or Wanita-versus-Puteri analogy. They do not like being identified as ex-Puteri members now that they are in the Wanita wing.

They say the Wanita wing is growing so well these days because Puteri has become the recruiting arm, producing ready-made women members for the Wanita wing.

“We are one big family. How can they say this contest is about Wanita fighting Puteri or mother versus daughter? A mother who really loves her daughter would pave the way,” said a former Puteri leader.

The second factor is, rightly or wrongly, known as the “Rafidah effect”. The former Iron Lady still has some measure of hard-core support among the senior ladies who have not forgiven Shahrizat for going back on her pledge not to challenge Rafidah for the wing’s leadership in 2009.

In the 2009 contest, Shahrizat won 64% of the votes against 35% by Rafidah.

The pro-Rafidah group in the wing is not as big as before but there will always be at least 30% or so in any party that will go against the incumbent.

This group may throw their support behind Azalina.

The third factor is that contests in Wanita are not always about what the women want. At times, the outcome has been swayed by what the men want or rather who the men want.

The talk out there is that the men in Umno regard Shahrizat as a liability because of the National Feedlot Corporation or NFC issue.

Many of them love her grace and style but are concerned about her image.