The 50-year-old former cabinet minister became the first woman to head Sweden’s biggest political party, which has been in opposition since a stinging legislative election defeat in September.
Sahlin, tall and slender with short dark hair and a ready smile, has spent more than half of her life in politics.
Born March 9, 1957, she grew up in a Social Democratic family. Her father was an advisor to the party in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the early 1970s as a young teen she joined the party’s youth wing, and in 1982, at age 25, she became the youngest member of Sweden’s parliament.
In 1990, at 33, she was appointed to her first cabinet post, as labour minister, and has also been minister of gender equality, integration, sustainable development and deputy prime minister.
She also served as the Social Democrats’ first woman party secretary, from 1992 to 1994.
Her career, described by Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter as a “rollercoaster,” has been marked by both glorious periods where she has been the darling of the party and the media, and stormy episodes.
Her first trial came as freshly appointed labour minister, when she drew the ire of union bosses by defending a salary freeze proposed by Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson as a means to get the beleaguered Swedish economy back on track.
The most famous controversy involving Sahlin, dubbed the “Toblerone affair,” took place in 1995, when she was one of several candidates for the party leadership.
Media revealed that she had charged private purchases to her government credit card, including a Toblerone chocolate bar. Further investigations showed her personal finances were in disarray with numerous late payments.
A media frenzy ensued and she was forced to withdraw her candidacy and take a three-year time-out from politics, before returning to join Göran Persson’s government in 1998 as minister of industry and employment.
Her election Saturday was therefore seen as sweet revenge, particularly given the fact that she could become Sweden’s first woman prime minister if she succeeds in leading the party to election victory in 2010.
But Sahlin is a controversial figure and she was not the first choice for many Social Democrats, winning the nomination by default after several other heavyweights bowed out of the race, including Sweden’s EU Commissioner Margot Wallström.
She has already declared three priorities for her leadership: global warming, labour market issues, and the fight against social injustice.
But she has yet to reveal whether she plans to steer the party toward the traditionalist left or push ahead with her predecessor’s shift toward the right.
According to Dagens Nyheter editorialist Henrik Brors, one of Sahlin’s strongest assets is her communication skills.
“She is a very good communicator,” he told AFP, noting that she has an ability to jump out of the television screen and get her message across to voters.
However, he added, “she lacks a clear political vision,” and could have trouble winning the support of Sweden’s powerful trade unions, traditionally close to the Social Democrats.
Sahlin is married and has three children. A fourth child died at the age of 11 months.
By AFP’s Sophie Mongalvy