Margot Wallstrom, Swedish FM embroiled in housing scandal

 20 Jan 2016 - 0:00

Margot Wallstrom, Swedish FM embroiled in housing scandal

 

Stockholm: Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, a rising star of the left-wing who's made a name as an uncompromising women's and human rights defender, could see her lustre fade after becoming embroiled in a housing scandal.

At 61, the frank-talking Social Democrat has courted controversy since taking office in October 2014, launching what she termed a "feminist foreign policy" and subsequently ruffling feathers in Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel in less than a year.

Throughout her four decades in Swedish and international politics she has stuck fiercely to her convictions and leftist ideals, in a career marked by her tough-talking, no-nonsense style.

Wallstrom has "a rare ability to stir things up," opposition leader Anna Kinberg Batra of the Conservatives said recently.

In one of her first moves as foreign minister, Wallstrom enraged Israel by announcing Sweden's recognition of a Palestinian state.

She recently angered Israel again by calling for "thorough" investigations into the Israeli army's killing of Palestinians, which she has termed "extrajudicial killings."

Last week Israel said it had had enough and declared her persona non grata.

And last year, Sweden's diplomatic ties with Riyadh were frozen after she called Saudi Arabia a "dictatorship" and slammed it for human rights abuses, using brazen terms that other Western diplomats might have avoided in dealing with the oil-rich state.

But regardless of the storms brewing around her, Wallstrom, who first entered parliament at the age of 25, remains apparently unflappable.

"We want good relations with Israel, we are friends of Israel," was her response to being declared unwelcome there.

She displayed the same coolness Tuesday when an anti-corruption prosecutor announced he had opened a preliminary inquiry to determine whether a crime was committed when she obtained a rent-controlled apartment from the municipal workers' union Kommunal, bypassing a queue of less eminent would-be tenants.

Stockholm has an acute housing shortage and the average waiting period to officially obtain a rental apartment is 13 years.

"I welcome an investigation. I have nothing to hide and it is good that this will get sorted out," Wallstrom told news agency TT, adding: "I will continue to do my job."

- Poster girl for Swedish feminists -

Born in 1954 in northern Sweden into a modest family, she became politically active as a teenager in the Social Democratic youth wing.

In the 1970s, Wallstrom was influenced early in her political career by Sweden's Social Democratic leader Olof Palme, the charismatic firebrand to whom she is occasionally compared.

Her talent for playing the game of politics and her hard-hitting, straightforward style helped her rise quickly through party ranks. She was given her first cabinet post, as deputy public administration minister, at the age of 32.

She went on to hold the portfolio for social affairs and then culture, before leaving for Brussels in 1999.

She was first appointed Environment Commissioner, then served another term as vice president of the Commission, and has tirelessly fought for women to be promoted within the Commission, the EU's executive arm.

With a steely gaze and short blonde bob, she is the poster girl for the Swedish no-nonsense career woman: when she moved her family to Brussels so she could become Sweden's European commissioner in 1999, her husband stayed home to cook, clean and care for their two sons, Viktor and Erik, then aged 14 and 6.

After her second stint in Brussels, she had caught the eye of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who named her special envoy on Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2010, a post she held until 2012.

Two years later, when the Social Democrats were planning their return to power in 2014 after eight years in opposition, prime minister to-be Stefan Lofven had Wallstrom in mind as his foreign minister: Her international experience would make up for his own shortcomings, his career having been spent as a union leader.

With crises in the Middle East and Ukraine occupying her time after taking up her new job as foreign minister, she signed her rental contract in April 2015, unaware that her housing arrangement would lead anti-corruption prosecutors to open a preliminary inquiry months later.

AFP