Home » Italy’s Democrats tap Elly Schlein as new leader. What you need to know

Italy’s Democrats tap Elly Schlein as new leader. What you need to know

Elly Schlein
The Italian left’s radical underdog now holds the tiller of its biggest party, which saw in her the solution to a years-long identity crisis. The young leader promised to double down on core leftwing battles and energise the opposition. But her line on foreign policy – especially regarding Ukraine and NATO – is still foggy

From underdog to top dog. On Sunday, members of the Italian Democratic Party (PD) elected Elly Schlein as their new secretary. The 37-year-old unexpectedly beat the favoured candidate, Emilia-Romagna’s Regional Governor Stefano Bonaccini, who had beaten her in the first round of the open primaries and to whom she had acted as deputy until October 2022.

  • Ms Schlein, an Italian, Swiss and United States citizen, has been labelled by Time as “Italy’s AOC” and endorsed by The Guardian as the Italian left’s “rising star.”
  • She volunteered in Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 electoral campaigns and spent years with the Italian left. She was elected MEP with the PD in 2014, then left the party in 2015, only to return in 2022 to run for leadership.

A flash in the dark. “The Democratic people are alive, [present] and ready to rise with a clear line,” rejoiced Ms Schlein in her victory speech. “We have done it; together, we have made a great little revolution. Once more, they did not see us coming.”

  • Over 1,300,000 voters lined up before the 5,500 primary election gazebos throughout Italy. An unexpectedly positive result for the PD, the flagship party of the Italian left, which has been reeling from a resounding defeat in September’s elections and dealing with identity issues for years.
  • The election of a female leader is also a first in the history of the Italian left’s flagship party, which has trailed behind the right-wing party of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in that regard.
  • But – as Repubblica’s Carmelo Lopapa wrote – Ms Schlein’s election is a “flash in the dark,” demonstrating that “the opposition is alive, that an alternative is possible and that there is an important and impetuous demand for politics and change” within the PD.

A shift to the left… Ms Schlein presented herself as the radical alternative to the more established Mr Bonaccini, who would have maintained the party’s balance firmly in the centre-left. Instead, the election of the upstart young politician indicated the party’s base is willing to look leftward.

  • In her victory speech, the new secretary said the PD “will be the party of rights, fighting against inequalities and for the minimum wage […] We will be a problem for [PM] Meloni. We will keep the party together but without giving up a clear direction for change.”
  • She was also endorsed by a host of longtime PD leaders, including the defeated Mr Bonaccini, and promised to work for unity and keep the split-prone party together.

… and a new phase in Italian politics. By breathing new life into the opposition, the PD’s new leader will likely energise the ideological push against PM Meloni’s right-wing government. Writing on Repubblica, which is historically close to the left, several commentators spoke of revitalising the defence of anti-fascist values – standing in contrast to the PM party’s post-fascist heritage.

  • In congratulating Ms Schlein for her victory, PM Meloni hoped it would help the PD “look forwards and not backwards.”
  • The PD’s alliances might also be reshaped as the party moves to the left. Possibly, it could rekindle its past entente with Giuseppe Conte’s Five Star Movement (5SM).
    • The two parties governed together before Mario Draghi came to power but did not run together in September due to ideological differences – including Ukraine.

The foreign policy knot. On the campaign trail, Ms Schlein was rather vague in indicating her position on the Russian war in Ukraine, NATO and its strategies. Writing on Repubblica, Stefano Folli noted hers “were the answers of those who do not want to commit themselves to a precise direction of travel and keep some way open.”

  • The outgoing secretary Enrico Letta never flinched in his Draghi-style support to Ukraine, even as some portions of the Italian left – including the former 5SM allies and minor parties – opposed sending more military supplies.
  • However, “Elly Schlein appeared closer to [Mr] Conte, one might say, than to [Mr] Draghi.” And at the moment, it’s not clear what line she will adopt – honouring the NATO commitments or flirting with the 5SM’s brand of “pacifism”, which in turn could drag her into Mr Conte’s sphere of influence?

As we asked ourselves in the wake of the elections: Will Putin-inspired pacifism erode the Italian left’s Atlanticism?

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