Advantage Shahrizat – thanks to new role

The appointment of Wanita Umno chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil as an adviser with ministerial status to the Prime Minister has been hailed as recognition for the women’s wing by her supporters while others have decried it as a disadvantage to her challenger Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said.

Joceline Tan, The Star

PENGERANG MP Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said is more athletic compared to the ladylike Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil. But the last few days has seen Shahrizat sprint ahead in the race for the Wanita Umno leadership.

It has all to do with the appointment of the incumbent Wanita chief as an adviser to the Prime Minister on matters pertaining to the development of women entrepreneurs and professionals.

It is no small appointment because it comes with ministerial status and perks although it is not equivalent to a seat in the Cabinet.

The appointment has drawn mixed reactions.

Her legion of supporters in Wanita Umno are overjoyed. They think she is getting the recognition she deserves because they felt that she was unfairly penalised for what happened with the National Feedlot Corporation or NFC issue.

Those who contacted her were informed of the appointment which took effect on Aug 15, which was also her 60th birthday. That very day, her close circle had gathered at the National Welfare Foundation (Yayasan Kebajikan Negara) which she is using as her office to celebrate with a simple meal of chicken rice and cake.

But the reaction from the rest of the party has been a little more muted.

Even the Prime Minister, the man behind the appointment, seemed rather taciturn. There has been no official announcement and when asked by the media, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s response was to “just leave it as it is”.

The Umno circle does not quite know what to make of it. But what they do know is that a government post carries weight in a party election and the appointment, coming on the threshold of the party election, could be interpreted in a number of ways.

At one level, it simply means that Najib is giving recognition to the Wanita wing.

At another level, it could mean that Najib has no problems with Shahrizat defending her Wanita post or even that he is endorsing her.

Azalina, on her part, finds it “a bit confusing”.

“I thought that such advisory posts are only given to those on retirement mode,” she said somewhat bitterly.

Whichever way one looks at it, the appointment has lent Shahrizat an unfair advantage over Azalina, who is struggling because she does not have the network or access in the women’s wing. Some said the Wanita contest is no longer a level playing field.

The year 2012 had been terrible for Shahrizat. The NFC issue has dragged down her public image, but her support in the Wanita wing is undiminished.

Her new status has given her newfound confidence and she has moved quickly to appoint her loyalist from Perak, Datuk Hamidah Othman, as National Entrepreneurial Group Economic Fund (Tekun) chairman. Another loyalist Datuk Rosni Sohar has been made an appointed member of the supreme council.

These women will help deliver the votes for her and some say, also for Najib.

The Umno election this time will be determined by delegates from 20,342 Umno branches nationwide. Every branch will send five or more delegates, which will include the Wanita head of each branch, to vote for the new leadership line-up. That adds up to more than 20,000 Wanita votes out there.

Najib has seen the extent of Shahrizat’s command over the women in the party and he knows that these senior ladies’ vote can sway the election.

As such, some think that Shah­rizat’s appointment has a lot to do with the Umno president trying to touch the hearts and minds of these women delegates.

Kedah exco member Datuk Suraya Yaakob, who has confirmed that she is contesting the deputy Wanita chief’s post, admitted that the Wanita mood is very much with Shahrizat.

Suraya has often been associated with Azalina because they have been part of a tight clique since their Puteri Umno days.

On Monday, after a special briefing on the new election process for the Wanita grassroots leaders, Suraya approached a number of the ladies to inform them that she was going for the number two post.

The first question many of them asked her was: “YB, who are you supporting? If you are with Kak Ijat (Shahrizat), you have our support.”

That is the sort of grip that Shahrizat has over the ladies.

During the Johor Umno committee meeting last weekend, Mentri Besar and state Johor chief Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin had declared that Johor will support Johor candidates vying for posts in the Umno polls.

Johor Wanita chief Sharifah Azizah Syed Zain who was at the meeting did not say anything at the time.

But she issued a statement the next day, saying: “Although Azalina is a Johorean, we will elect the Wanita leader based on merit. Parochialism does not have a place in this election.”

It was a strong and independent statement from a staunch supporter of Shahrizat.

It will take a miracle for Azalina to beat Shahrizat, but she is still expected to get at least 30% of the vote, which will come from those critical of Shahrizat’s leadership, the remnant hardcore supporters of Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz as well as the Puteri girls who have moved into the Wanita ranks.

The Shahrizat-Rafidah fight in 2009 was seen as the Steel Magnolia taking on the Iron Lady. The Shahrizat-Azalina contest has been painted as Wanita-versus-Puteri because Azalina was the former Puteri chief.

The two women used to work as corporate lawyers before plunging into politics, but their temperament and political styles could not be more different.

The ringtones of their mobile phones alone says a lot. Shahrizat’s phone sports a soulful nasyid tune whereas Azalina’s phone has a catchy hip-hop number.

Both women have their own plans and vision for how the Wanita wing should grow. But as expected, this contest is going to be less about who can really deliver than who the women on the ground can relate to and like more.