Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil will face off in the high-stakes contest for the Wanita Umno leadership. Whoever loses is finished politically.
THE last time that Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil met was a fortnight ago, after an acrimonious Wanita Umno exco meeting.
The Wanita Umno leader and her deputy were still smiling, though not at each other, and it was clear as daylight that things had gone seriously wrong between them.
Rafidah looked combative and she dominated the press conference as only she could.
Shahrizat, who was beside her, seemed overwhelmed, even defeated, but she was boiling with anger inside after being thrashed by Rafidah’s loyalists in the meeting. It was sheer decorum that stopped her from exploding.
It was a turning point for her and that night, after going through the deluge of text messages from her political supporters and friends, she decided she was not going to take things lying down.
On Thursday, she announced in a brief press statement that she would challenge Rafidah for the top Wanita Umno post. The next day, Rafidah announced she would defend her post, also in a press statement.
The contest for the leadership of Wanita Umno is on. When the two ladies next meet, it will be a face-off between adversaries.
The announcement could not have been sooner for Shahrizat’s supporters.
“It’s about time and I feel jubilant,” said Wanita permanent chairman Tan Sri Napsiah Omar who has had her ups and downs with Rafidah over the years.
The Wanita Umno ground had moved for Shahrizat by giving her 73 nominations for the No. 1 post as well as 102 for the No. 2 post.
Earlier this week in Penang, Tanjong Wanita chief Norjan Abdul Hamid led a group of 10 Wanita division chiefs to voice support for Shahrizat. The “Gang of 10” created a stir because it was the first time a group had come out this way.
Since then, more Wanita Umno division chiefs have openly supported Shahrizat to take over in March instead of June. They include 22 out of 24 divisions in Rafidah’s home state of Perak, 18 out of 25 in Sabah and 12 out of 15 in Kedah.
The lady has the numbers, no doubt about that.
She also has a running mate, Datuk Kamilia Ibrahim, who looks likely to win the No. 2 post unopposed.
But supporters of Rafidah have been quick to point out that the Iron Lady secured a lion’s share of 117 nominations for the No. 1 post. She also has ground support because Wanita chiefs Datuk Halimah Sadique of Johor and Datuk Maznah Mazlan of Pahang have come out solidly for her.
And Rafidah is evidently not going to take the challenge lying down either, going by the angry messages she fired off to various Wanita leaders who asked her to go in March.
Rafidah’s right-hand woman Datuk Faridah Abu Hassan told people that “Rafidah has lost before, she is not afraid of fighting.”
Rafidah is furious at what she sees as a volte-face on the part of Shahrizat over the June transition.
The distrust between the two camps is simply too great and accusations over who played out whom have been flying back and forth.
Rafidah’s side believes that Shahrizat was in cahoots with Kamilia in soliciting endorsement for the two top posts to topple Rafidah.
On the other hand, Shahrizat’s supporters are convinced that Rafidah’s loyalists will lobby to get Rafidah a Cabinet post after March next year and find excuses for her to stay on beyond June. They have urged Shahrizat not to walk into the trap.
Shahrizat, who had been shrinking from a fight, had been quite naively hoping that Rafidah would come around to a March exit. But the vested interests around Rafidah would not budge, no matter how illogical the notion of prolonging Rafidah’s term by a mere three months.
Besides, Rafidah had by then slammed the door to a dignified exit. To back off now would be too great a loss of face.
Both sides also claim to have the support of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak who will be the new Umno president by the time the Umno general assembly concludes in March.
The two ladies met separately with him at his office earlier this week to present their case. Rafidah had a private aside with him after an Umno management committee meeting while Shahrizat met him on Tuesday.
Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib are staying above the fray in what they consider to be a strictly Wanita Umno affair.
Shahrizat has also sought out Abdullah’s blessing to contest the post. The Prime Minister apparently told Shahrizat that the contest should be conducted in an “honourable way” and not to lose sight of the greater party interest.
The big question now is how the fight will turn out.
Among Rafidah’s advantages are her power of incumbency, a band of die-hard loyalists holding positions in the wing and the fact that she is still Kuala Kangsar MP.
Shahrizat holds an advisory post with ministerial status and her previous ministry had reached out to a spectrum of women.
But her biggest edge is that she represents change in a wing which has been dominated by Rafidah for more than 20 years.
Conversely, Rafidah’s challenge is convincing the women why, at 65 and a good 10 years older than Shahrizat, she should be given another term at the helm.
The last two big fights in the women’s wing were in 1996 and 2000.
The first saw Datuk Seri Dr Siti Zaharah Sulaiman who, with the backing of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, narrowly beat Rafidah by 27 votes.
Four years later, Rafidah won back the post by only 12 votes even though she was a senior minister, the blue-eyed girl of then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar was no longer around to stir trouble for her.
The lesson here is that Rafidah cannot be complacent in this third major fight in her career. She is definitely no pushover but she will have to give it her all.
Back then, the men in Umno played a big role in influencing their Wanita members to go against Rafidah. There is still little love lost between the men and the Iron Lady but the senior ladies will be in greater charge of their own destiny this time around.
Some of them, like Napsiah, have taken it upon themselves to brief Najib on the situation in the wing.
“I had to do it because it is about the future of Wanita Umno. We are not only choosing a leader for Wanita Umno but also a leader for the country,” said Napsiah.
Shahrizat flew off to Cairo the next day for an OIC ministerial meeting on women. Any campaigning on her part will have to wait till she returns. Even then, she intends to conduct a low-key and decorous campaign.
But that does not mean that things will not get hot because this is a high stakes contest. Whoever loses is finished politically.