Italy’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) suffered a devastating defeat in September’s parliamentary elections, which saw Giorgia Meloni from Brothers of Italy and her right-wing alliance come to power in a landslide victory.
But could a pioneering new candidate reverse the party’s misfortune?
Meet Elly Schlein, a 37-year-old member of parliament who is widely touted as the youngest star in Italian politics and a possible glimmer of hope for the struggling centre-left.
Earlier this month, Schlein announced her bid to become the new leader of the Democratic Party next year. The young and openly bisexual candidate is a feminist and passionate pro-European who presents herself as a “real” leftist — one who appeals more to the disenfranchised in society than to the “elites,” whom the modern left often advertises.
Media describe Schlein as the “anti-Giorgia Meloni” and compare her with US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is also known for her socially progressive platform.
So who is Elly Schlein? Will it be able to revive Italy’s dying centre-left? And how do Italians perceive them?
Italy’s AOC: Schlein’s political platform
Elly Schlein’s political position is perhaps best summed up in the way she announced her leadership offer.
In a speech at a club in the suburbs of Rome — outside the “restricted traffic zone,” a metaphor often used to represent the wealthy elite — she announced a “progressive, environmentalist and feminist” campaign to offer Italy’s new far-right government an “alternative.” Meanwhile, their supporters sang “Bella Ciao,” Italy’s anti-fascist resistance anthem.
Schlein, who belongs to the more socialist wing of the PD, wants to present a new and unifying vision for the left and the country.
As a party whose roots lie in the fusion of the communist and Christian democratic factions of Italy’s past, the PD is often perceived as a party that suffers from an identity crisis and fails due to a gap between a more centrist, economic liberal and a left-wing.
Former party leaders, in particular Matteo Renzi, have often been accused of avoiding the left roots of the PD, and in fact their leading opponent in the primaries, Stefano Bonaccini, is politically centrist, even though she was formerly a member of the Communist Party.
Schlein, for example, is in favour of a minimum wage — something that the Democratic Party itself has not yet been able to agree on. She talks about a Green New Deal and the party’s return to the trade unions and suburbs, all of which have been compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s platform.
Schlein’s reputation as a courageous, convinced politician who broke through the ranks of Italy’s bourgeois political establishment has also prompted commentators to see her as the left’s answer to the newly-minted Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose own meteoric rise from the margins of Italian politics has been attributed to her charismatic personality and mass appeal.
Although Schlein resists the anti-melon label, she did not avoid getting on the ropes of Italy’s new — and first female — prime minister.
“Not all female leadership positions are feminist leadership positions,” she said earlier this month. “Politically, we are far apart.”
A diverse background
Italy’s political class has earned a reputation for being homogenous — over the decades, its members have been predominantly male and advanced.
Schlein’s background is in obvious contrast, not only for her gender and youth, but also for her heritage.
Swiss-born left-wing politician comes from an ethnically diverse family. Schlein’s father is a Jewish-American political scientist, her mother an Italian law professor and she therefore has triple Swiss-Italian-American citizenship.
If Schlein were elected leader of the Democratic Party, she would be both the first woman and an openly LGBTQ person to lead the center-left bloc.
Schlein makes no secret of the fact that her background makes her an outlier in Italian politics.
In 2020, she came out as bisexual on a popular TV show and revealed that she has a girlfriend.
“I’ve loved a lot of men, I’ve loved a lot of women. Right now I’m [in a relationship] with a woman and I’m happy,” the MP told TV presenter Daria Bignardi and received enthusiastic applause from the audience.
From election campaign for Obama to the fight against Salvini: Schlein’s political journey
As a triple citizen, it is hardly surprising that Schlein’s career would be as international as her background.
After completing her law degree at the University of Bologna, the left-wing politician began her career 7,000 km from home by working at Barack Obama’s campaign rallies in 2008 and 2012.
After cutting her political teeth across the Atlantic, Schlein became a passionate youth activist for the Democratic Party and was elected as a member of the European Parliament in 2014.
following year, as she increasingly spoke out against the labor reforms of then-Prime Minister and party leader Renzi, she finally separated from the PD and joined a splinter party, Possible (Possibile).
In 2020, Elly Schlein was elected to the center-left list in Emilia-Romagna, a historically communist region that was in danger of subjugating Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant, populist Northern League in regional elections. She emerged as the most successful candidate in the region’s history and became vice president of the region — current President Bonaccini is her opponent in next year’s primaries — and effectively stopped a supposedly “invincible” far-right wave.
How did she manage to defeat Salvini? “By asking the right questions,” she quipped.
A new hope for the left? Or the same old one?
The media hype surrounding Elly Schlein is so great that the young candidate is already being praised as the new protagonist of the Italian left. But if you scratch below the surface, is it as popular as it is portrayed?
The picture is perhaps less rosy than you think. Schlein herself is currently not in the lead when it comes to winning the PD’s primaries and is 18 points behind her main opponent in a recent survey.
Schlein remains a popular election among the left-wing youth of the PD, many of whom are pinning their hopes on a revival of the party and its values.
“A renewal of the party is necessary,” a PD member, Laura Leuzzi, told CNNBreakingNews.net. “I think [Schlein] can effect this renewal, and I always try to support left-wing female leaders who are mindful of younger generations.”
For many Italian leftists who, like Schlein, had left the PD in the last ten years due to their increasingly centrist positions — particularly after Matteo Renzi’s party leadership — the aspiring candidate remains a welcome potential change.
Among them is 29-year-old Giacomo, who left the party after disagreeing with its political line.
“I’m going to vote for them in the primaries,” he told CNNBreakingNews.net. “Contrary to what her critics say, she comes up with many more ideas than people give her credit for.”
“As an MEP, she tried, for example, to reform the Dublin Convention on Asylum Seekers, while the PD attacked the legal rights of migrants,” he stated.
Other young leftists, however, are less impressed.
This includes Agostino Biondo, a 30-year-old camp clerk and youth activist from the PD from Rome. Although he belongs to the left wing of the party, he is not convinced that Schlein and its policies are sufficiently socialist.
“[Saying you’re a leftist] isn’t enough,” he told CNNBreakingNews.net. “What does it mean to be a leftist?
“Being left-wing for a minimum wage is not enough… you have to be left-wing at least to nationalize the means of production, and even that is not enough.”
In recent years, the PD has suffered from stagnation and is considered to have failed the working class, leaving members like Biondo skeptical that it can bring about major changes.
“The PD must intercept workers, the unemployed and people who probably don’t even know who Elly Schlein is,” he said.
“Yes, she’s talking about wanting to venture outside the city center, but that’s what other PD candidates have done in the past too… The problem is, how are you going to do that?