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Sahlin and Reinfeldt enter final sprint for lasting political glory

AFP/The Local · 18 Sep 2010, 08:46

Published: 18 Sep 2010 08:46 GMT+02:00

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Prime Minister Reinfeldt, 45, and his 53-year-old Social Democrat rival, both saw their political lives put on hold the same year, in 1995.

That year, Reinfeldt, a young star of the conservative Moderate party, lashed out at Carl Bildt, who had just been ousted as prime minister.

He called for a liberal electrochoc to wake-up the "sleeping nation" and criticised the party's top brass.

The fall-out was too much, and Reinfeldt was kept away from significant posts for four years.

"They treated me like I had the plague," he later wrote.

Sahlin, from a political family, entered parliament at the age of 25 after a few years holding odd jobs.

By the age of 37, she had risen to second-in-command of Sweden's largest party as the heir-apparent to then prime minister Ingvar Carlsson.

Her fall from grace can be summed-up in one word: Toblerone.

Her time as party darling was abruptly cut short when it was revealed she had bought a few thousand dollars worth of personal items, including the famous Swiss chocolate, on her party credit card.

Further investigations showed her personal finances were in disarray with numerous late payments.

A media frenzy ensued and under public opinion pressures, the party's rising star was forced to withdraw her candidacy and retreat from public life.

During her three-year break from politics, she wrote a book, worked as a school principal and a journalist and had her own business.

She returned as a junior minister in 1998, holding the employment portfolio in Göran Persson's government and then gradually climbed the party ladder, tragically helped by the murder of the very popular Anna Lindh in 2003.

Popular Lindh, the foreign minister and a close friend of Sahlin's, was tipped as a possible successor to Persson and her murder left the place open to another rising woman star.

Sahlin became leader of the Social Democrats in 2007, taking over from Göran Persson who in 2006 had suffered a stinging electoral defeat to the centre-right.

The new prime minister, Reinfeldt had quickly bounced back from his forced break thanks to the blow the Moderates suffered in the 2002 election, and became the party leader in 2003.

He quieted down, softened his right-wing image in the home of the welfare state, adopted more consensual and centrist policies, and gained in popularity with his reflective, attentive nature.

He ousted Persson in 2006 by offering tax cuts and presenting himself as the leader of "the worker's party" -- as opposed to the party of people living on benefits.

Europe then discovers the hot-dog-loving, baby-faced father of three, who doesn't mind doing chores and home and hardly loses his calm.

Story continues below…

He names former foe Bildt foreign minister, his presidency of the EU in 2009 is considered a success and the country quickly bounces back from the global crisis.

His adversary Sahlin has a clear mandate, to give power back to the Social Democrats, who have led Sweden for all but 17 of the past 80 years.

Perceived as ambitious and a clear communicator, Sahlin, with short brown hair and slightly slanted, heavily made-up eyes, is known for her love of coffee and nicotine.

She has promised to make Sweden a "social paradise," blasting Reinfeldt's tax cuts, and has described Sunday's vote as a "destiny election" for Sweden.

But with polls predicting a tight race between the two coalitions and Sahlin often far behind Reinfeldt in personal popularity surveys, the election could determine Sahlin's own destiny, ending her long career if she fails to become Sweden's first female prime minister.

AFP/The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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