Saturday, October 20, 2007

Wanita UMNO: Proxy fight in the making

It's still early days yet but Azalina Othman Said cannot be underestimated. A political feud in Cheras Umno has sparked off the possibility of a challenge to Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz's leadership in Wanita Umno. The likely challenger may be the party's former Puteri chief.

SENATOR Datuk Syed Ali Alhabshi and Datuk Faridah Abu Hassan are both big guns in the Cheras Umno division.

But on on one Sunday evening recently, both politicians hosted separate political functions in Cheras.

Syed Ali, the powerful division chief, was at a buka puasa event for orphans whereas Faridah, the division Wanita head, was hosting a buka puasa dinner for single mothers and the elderly.

It was all quite deliberate because the two have not seen eye to eye for more than a year now. In fact, they cannot stand the sight of each other.

The depth of the animosity was demonstrated that evening when Syed Ali voiced his support for Datuk Azalina Othman Said, the VIP guest that evening, to contest the top Wanita Umno post.

He said that if the Youth and Sports Minister were ready to challenge Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz, his division would give her the full backing.

His statement was rather premature given that Umno elections are due only next year but SMSes have been flying like crazy within Umno circles.

According to one deputy minister, those who approve of the proposal are almost equal in number to those critical of it.

But what surprised the deputy minister was that those who disapproved seemed less concerned about a contest in the Wanita wing than the fact that members should be focusing on the general election for now.

"He may have opened up Pandora's Box," said an Umno supreme council member, meaning that Syed Ali's action might lead to unpredictable, even damaging, consequences.

Syed Ali's target, as everyone knows, is Faridah. But he has decided to extend his fight to the power behind Faridah, that is Rafidah.

Faridah has long been Rafidah's right-hand woman. The International Trade and Industry Minister stood by Faridah throughout her feud with Syed Ali and reportedly said that she would keep Faridah as the national Wanita secretary even if the latter was not re-elected Cheras Wanita head.

It is understood that Syed Ali had turned to Azalina only after he failed to persuade Wanita deputy chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil to contest against Rafidah.

Shahrizat has made it very clear that she will not challenge Rafidah.

"I'm modern in thinking but when it comes to the party, I am a traditionalist. I believe in the party system and I don't want to put the movement at risk," said Shahrizat.

Syed Ali is the archetype Umno warlord but to his credit, his division is one of the best managed and even has its own building. The blot on his record would be his fall-out with Faridah.

He is also very shrewd and would not do something without preliminary groundwork. Some suggest he knows his proposal would have the support of other division chiefs, most of whom call the shots over the Youth and Wanita heads in their respective divisions.

There has never been much love lost between Rafidah and the men in the party. She makes no bones about what she thinks of most of them and they simply cannot stomach the way she refuses to dance to their tune.

Given this, Azalina cannot be underestimated.

On her own she may seem like a featherweight against the mighty Iron Lady but with the backing of powerful division heads she may prove to be a match.

The current scenario, said Kelantan Umno information chief Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad, is reminiscent of the 1996 Umno polls when Datuk Dr Siti Zaharah Sulaiman defeated Rafidah for the Wanita leadership.

"Zaharah was not a strong candidate but she won because the division chiefs wanted a change and exerted their influence over the Wanita members," said Alwi.

Azalina has neither endorsed nor dismissed the proposal. She said she was happy with her position in the supreme council and that she would only think of party politics after the general election.

But Rafidah will also have much to think about because Syed Ali has fired the warning shot.

From The Star. By Joceline Tan (Star Columnist)

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