Ilmar Reepalu, Mayor of Malmo

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Ilmar Reepalu
Mayor of Malmö
By Andrew Stevens

25 June 2010: Malmö’s Estonian-born mayor Ilmar Reepalu has led his city since 1995. An urban planner by profession, he has presided over significant development of Sweden's third city and repositioned it as a transnational hub through its partnership with Copenhagen in the Öresund Region. Ilmar Reepalu has been nominated for the 2010 World Mayor Prize.

Reepalu was born in 1943: not in Sweden but in Nõva, Estonia, across the Baltic. A year later he and his family fled occupied Estonia for neutral Sweden, making their escape via a makeshift boat which sank in rough seas, though they were rescued from the water by the Swedish military. Making Motala their home after a stay in a refugee camp, Reepalu grew up in the town, where he established a branch of the Social Democratic Youth League in his teens. Following military service, he moved to Gothenburg to take studies at Chalmers University in environmental science, taking postgraduate studies in architecture in 1970. During this time Reepalu absorbed himself in local activism, campaigning to save the historic character of the Haga district in the face of demolition efforts by the city.

Reepalu began his career in 1970 as an employee of power giant ABB, before joining an architectural practice in Malmö in 1973. At this time Reepalu was encouraged to become more active in the Social Democrats by then mayor Nils Yngvesson but in 1977 he transferred to the town of Borås, where he became deputy director of town planning for the municipality. In 1979 he relocated back to Malmö, working for the city in urban planning.

Reepalu has been mayor of the City of Malmö since 1995, with the municipality governed by the Social Democrats ever since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1919, except for two short stints in 1985-88 and 1991-93. The municipality expanded to its current boundaries in 1971, when it gained unitary status, though its self-styling as a ‘city’ has no legal basis. The 61-member municipal assembly, elected every four years, appoints the executive committee and commissioners, headed by the mayor. The municipality does not cover all of the area recognised as Malmö as part of this is contained in the Burlov municipality, which has long resisted merger.

On Reepalu’s watch, Malmö has developed into a thriving modern metropolis, with major infrastructure projects such as the Öresund Bridge and City Tunnel and the extensive redevelopment of its Western Harbour, home of the iconic Turning Torso tower, and the foundation of the Malmö University in the city centre. The Oresund Bridge has enabled the facilitation of the creation of the Öresund Region between Sweden and its neighbour Denmark, a globally-acclaimed unified cross-border region consisting of Danish capital Copenhagen and Sweden’s third city Malmö.

 While transnational cooperation has brought together the once divided Swedes and Danes and in spite of the liberal character, which defined Sweden’s Social Democrats throughout their dominant period in the 20th century, other aspects of Reepalu’s mayoralty have been criticised as socially divisive. Malmö is home to the largest share of foreign-born residents in Sweden, the majority of which arrived from conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia. In 2007 and in spite of his own background, Reepalu joined with fellow Social Democrat heavyweight mayors Göran Johansson of Gothenburg and Anders Lago of Södertälje to call for municipalities to be able to restrict settlement by immigrants.

Reepalu was also accused of gross insensitivity and anti-semitism this year when he sought to downplay the doubling of anti-semitic hate crime in the city and confused physical attacks on its Jewish population with anti-Israeli sentiment. Reepalu’s remarks drew criticism from not only Jewish community leaders in Malmö but also his own party leader Mona Sahlin, who called them “unfortunate”. The mayor later claimed that he had not been informed of the scale of the problem, but was accused of callous indifference when he shrugged at the plight of Jews forced to leave the city. Reepalu has in the past courted controversy over the impact of Jewish settlement in the city, accusing the Jewish population of fostering anti-semitism by its support for Zionism. The mayor shrugged off the criticism as misquoting his use of the word Zionism and as coming solely from the “Israeli lobby”.

In 2006 the mayor was also implicated in a scandal concerning acceptance of a free trip to South Africa from the Sigma AB company alongside Skåne County governor Bengt Holgersson, though both were acquitted following a trial. One of the more colourful policies of the city council has been to permit topless bathing in public pools, after a local campaign by women to demand equality with men forced a vote in 2009 following two students being forced to cover up by lifeguards. The issue perhaps serves to contrast the diversity challenge faced by Swedish municipalities, some of which have gone in the opposite direction and issued 'burkinis' to Muslim women.

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