Rise of Elly Schlein in Italy


Photo source: Open Democracy

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Another woman called Elly Schlein has burst into Italy’s political scene. Leading the Partito Democratico, she is the main centre-left rival to Meloni’s far-right Fratelli d'Italia. Regardless of opposing beliefs, Meloni and Schlein now occupy a similar space in wooing voters. 

Schlein’s outsider status, not to mention her political magnetism and drive, have already given her one important win against Italy’s far-right, when she helped defeat Meloni’s ally, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League, in the Emilia-Romagna region in 2020. But emerging victorious in a general election in Italy is a notoriously messy and tribalistic affair. It’s a completely different ball game. Hence to succeed, she needs to revive the PD’s diminishing influence and fend off her political adversaries - as well as retort certain doubts from within her own party.

For decades, Italy’s male leaders have been acclaimed due to a remarkably homogeneous political milieu, and all had similar characteristics: homegrown and greying. With the advent of time, Italians are now seeing a rise in feminist politics in their country and for some, it is a good thing.

Schlein traces her heritage much further afield. Born in Switzerland to a family of Jewish-American and Italian academics, she cut her political teeth in the US, where she campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She even quit the party in 2015, while serving as a member of the European Parliament, when PD leader and then prime minister Matteo Renzi tried to push through economically liberal reforms.

She remained an active member of the broader center-left coalition, but re-joined the PD in 2022, two months before the leadership race that followed the party’s brutal defeat in the September 2022 snap general election. She remained unpopular with much of the party’s establishment, which is why her victory was a shock.

While being queer, she is considerably more vocal about being a woman in a male-dominated political environment. Throughout its history, Italy’s left-wing tradition has included many female pioneers, most prominently, Communist politician Nilde Lotti, who became the first female speaker of Parliament’s lower house in 1979. However, due to certain reasons, including a dominant male hierarchy, the PD’s all-male leadership has alienated many women in a party that intends to be Italy’s leading progressive force.

Schlein also wrote a book, ‘La Nostra Parte’ (Our Part), which was published in 2022. It details her life and political visions, having a desire to break up the status quo. Schlein’s speeches imitate the passion of other young reformist politicians active in US and the UK. She permeates her rhetoric with references to patriarchy, racism, feminism, LGBTIQ+ rights, environment, and promises to fight for a state-mandated minimum wage.

Among her political reference points are figures banned from the Italian political mainstream, such as US critical race theory scholar KimberlĂ© Crenshaw. She wears her anti-fascist credentials like a badge, making ‘Bella ciao’ (Italy’s famous Resistance anthem during the Second World War) her own call to arms.

Her activism is rooted in her first-hand experience in a nation that, while being multi-ethnic, has seen racism intensify, and has never properly come to terms with its fascist and colonial past. Although her Jewish heritage has made her a direct far-right target.

Andrea Carlo wrote in Open Democracy: ‘Schlein’s ability to infuse her politics with the struggles of minority groups she herself belongs to has given her a certain authenticity among Italy’s progressive younger voters. Indeed, she often employs the controversial neutral pronoun schwa (written as an upside-down e – É™) instead of the masculine form, to convey inclusivity in a language that has a strict gender binary.’

The biggest question for Italy’s left-wing voters is whether Schlein has what it takes to revive the PD and tackle Meloni in the next election in 2027.

In her political corridors, things do look dismal. Her fellow social democrats are spooked at a probable scenario that could transform the PD from the broad progressive church it’s historically been into a much more radical sect through her leadership.

During contemporary times, it also seems that the reasons behind PD’s misfortunes are many and complex. Born out of a historical union of Italy’s postwar communist and more centrist Christian Democratic factions, it has suffered from a profound identity crisis since its origin, struggling to bridge the fault lines between its internal factions.

Surviving in Italy’s volatile political arena is a challenge, too. Since the collapse of the main Cold War-era political blocs in the early 1990s, the national political landscape has become a theatre of short-lived parties, and also leaves traditional political forces struggling to reinvent themselves.

As a rival, she has also repeatedly assailed Meloni on her policies, from immigration and labour laws to her stance on gender, but has avoided inflammatory confrontation, promising to offer an alternative vision for Italy.


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