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1 March 2023

The rise of Elly Schlein, the new left-wing leader of the Italian Democrats

She has been compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jeremy Corbyn. But can the progressive new leader unite Italy’s left?

By David Broder

“A little big revolution.” That was how Elly Schlein, the newly declared winner of the Italian Democrats’ leadership election, described her victory on 26 February. Her triumph was an upset: votes in local Democratic party branches handed an early lead to the more centrist Stefano Bonaccini, but the primary election, among a broader electorate of registered supporters, handed the progressive Schlein an overall 54-46 per cent margin. Now she faces the task of reorganising a fragmented left-wing opposition.

Schlein is often called an “outsider”. This is in part because of her profile: she is 37, bisexual, and will be the Democrats’ first female leader. She’s also relatively new to the party. She had quit in 2015, during the leadership of the Blairite-inspired premier Matteo Renzi, and rejoined only in December 2022. While the Democrats were in national government through most of the last decade, often in grand-coalition or technocratic arrangements, Schlein was not.

Like many politicians who have journeyed from the old Communist Party toward the liberal centre, Bonaccini focused his campaign on “electability”, insisting he didn’t want “a left that wins dinner-party discussions but not elections”. He seemed to be criticising those who let their progressive mores grow out of step with ordinary Italians. Yet it seems that the primary electorate bristled at this analysis, after years in which a series of leaders advocating sensible centrism continued to haemorrhage support. In their first general election bid in 2008 the Democrats scored 14 million votes; in 2022, only 5.4 million.

[See also: Italy is too large to save but cannot be left to fail. Eventually, something has to give]

While the neoliberal Renzi, who quit the party in 2019, is widely repudiated in Democratic circles, Mario Ricciardi, editor of Il Mulino, tells me that there still “hasn’t been a real reckoning over what went wrong in the post-2008-crisis period”. Schlein campaigned on civil rights issues like same-sex marriage, citizenship for migrants’ children born in Italy, and the creation of a national minimum wage – policies the Democrats have failed to deliver in the past. But the party also needs to address “the electorate’s new demands, for more protection”, Ricciardi says.

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In this sense Schlein offers a different but also risky path to electability. In her acceptance speech on 26 February she said the party “should obsess over those who don’t vote; sadly, that mostly means lower-income groups”. At the general election last September there was a historic low turnout of 64 per cent, and in two regional contests in February large majorities abstained. If most voters leaving the left turn to abstention or the eclectic, populist Five Star Movement, rather than turning to the right, Schlein thinks she can inspire them again.

Giulia Blasi, a feminist writer and activist who supported Schlein’s campaign, says that her victory, like her previous campaigns in the wealthy, northern Emilia-Romagna region, showed her ability to “galvanise a different voter base”. For Blasi, “what happened with this leadership election far exceeded expectations, especially as there’s such a disconnect between how party members voted and how the general [primary] electorate did”.

Schlein’s “intersectional social democracy” is rich in talk of mobilisation and opposition. “We’re going to be a big problem for Giorgia Meloni’s government,” she declared on the evening of her primary win. This means “sticking up for the Italy that’s struggling most: the poor who the government is attacking but refuses to see, and exploited, precarious workers.” Her Democratic party would “take to the barricades” against “cuts and privatisation of universal healthcare”.

Such oppositional language was uncommon under recent Democratic leaders. In fact, the party’s 2022 general election campaign focused on defending the former central banker Mario Draghi’s record at the head of a national-unity government, and many leaders have quieted criticisms of Meloni, the prime minister, whose right-wing Brothers of Italy party has roots in fascism. In this sense Schlein promises sharper dividing lines. For Blasi, “Schlein is very clear on where she stands and a lot more tuned into what people want and need. I think this is what [primary] voters responded to – now, she and the rest of the party need to build on that.”

Many reports have called Schlein an Italian Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (the New York Democratic congresswoman): a young female outsider who joins a party to combat its establishment and pull it to the left. In other – usually more hostile – versions the comparison is with Jeremy Corbyn or France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Allies of Renzi in the liberal-centrist Third Pole, made up of people who quit the party, have called her success a “hostile takeover” that would doom the Democrats to irrelevance. Yet while Schlein’s victory marks a clear progressive shift, there are also many differences between her and these other figures. 

[See also: The struggle for Italy]

In the recent surges of the left in Britain, France and the US veterans of the post-1968 New Left joined with younger activists who adopted socialist language in opposition to the neoliberalised centre-left. This isn’t exactly what has happened in Italy. Clearly, many primary voters realised the centre-left was in trouble and hoped Schlein’s Democrats would be able to win over low-income groups and abstainers. But it’s not clear whether Schlein won the primary because she’s winning back those millions of disenfranchised Italians already, or simply appealed to the switched-on, progressive-minded voters who took part in this particular vote.

Schlein’s outsider status can be overstated, if we consider that she was until recently vice-president to Bonaccini in Emilia-Romagna’s regional council. Her leadership campaign was supported even by Democratic grandees such as Nicola Zingaretti, who was leader in 2019-21. While many opponents try to label her as extremist, her progressive agenda has prompted no frontal clash with the Democratic party establishment. This is both an advantage in terms of party management, and a potential barrier to changing its image.

Turning the party around – in terms of reversing the popular perception of it as aloof, and changing its poor electoral fortunes – could still be difficult. Schlein is “not naïve”, Blasi says, and the Democratic party remains a “strange beast”. Even leading the opposition to Meloni’s regressive agenda is no simple goal, with the Five Star Movement having adopted a markedly more welfarist tone in the last year, helping it to overtake the Democrats in opinion polls again.

Five Star and the Democrats have some fundamental disagreements – with the Democrats much more enthusiastic about military support for Ukraine. They also have different social bases, with Five Star stronger among younger, poorer and southern voters. Giuseppe Conte, the leader of Five Star, welcomed Schlein’s success as a broader acceptance of his talking points. What’s not yet clear is whether Schlein can rally the millions of Italians who didn’t vote in the primary at the next election.

Read more:

Who is Giorgia Meloni?

Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist party triumphs in the Italian election

Italian election: the rise of Giorgia Meloni

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