Feminist is the favourite to take over as Prime Minister in Stockholm

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

A feminist who wears jeans to work and wants to prosecute men who visit prostitutes is the front-runner to replace Ingvar Carlsson as Sweden's next Prime Minister. Mona Sahlin, 38, who at present combines the jobs of deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Sexual Equality, received 49 per cent this week in a straw poll of supporters of the ruling Social Democrats.

Her nearest rival was the little-known Minister for Co-ordination, Jan Nygren, who scored 19 per cent in the survey published by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. An outside candidate, Margareta Winberg, who is the Agriculture Minister and is known chiefly for her hostility to the European Union, received 11 per cent.

Mr Carlsson, 60, announced last Friday that he would resign at a party congress next March, 10 years after he took over the Social Democratic leadership following the assassination of Olof Palme. Mrs Sahlin, a mother of three who dropped out of university because her studies bored her, has been one of Mr Carlsson's most trusted colleagues in recent years.

If she replaces Mr Carlsson, she will not only become Sweden's first female prime minister but its youngest ever. She played a key part in persuading Mr Carlsson to introduce a rule under which cabinet posts are distributed equally between men and women.

She has strong support among the youth and women's sections of the Social Democrats, and the party faithful admire her defence of Sweden's large and expensive public sector as an important national asset that should be funded by tax increases if necessary. But some private business executives have regarded Mrs Sahlin with suspicion ever since she criticised their high pay and bonuses and called them "spoilt children".

Mr Carlsson's retirement will allow his successor up to two and a half years to settle into the prime minister's job before Sweden holds its next general elections. Having steered the Social Democrats to victory last September, and having led the successful "Yes" campaign in last October's referendum on joining the EU, Mr Carlsson felt the time was right to bow out at the top.

"I want to have something that I haven't experienced in 30 years," he said. "I want to be able to have dinner with my family without having to book it three months in advance."

Mr Carlsson's government has lost popularity over the past year because it has been forced to adopt strict austerity measures to combat Sweden's worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Unemployment runs at more than 12 per cent, if people on various government-backed working and training schemes are included, and the budget deficit is more than 11 per cent of GNP.

Cuts in welfare spending have alienated many traditional Social Democratic voters and increased support for the Left Party of reformed communists. At the same time, public enthusiasm for the EU has declined, with polls suggesting that a majority would oppose membership if Sweden held a new referendum.