Italy’s main progressive formation has elected a woman to lead the party for the first time. Contrary to what the polls predicted, 37-year-old Elly Schlein defeated Stefano Bonaccini in the Democratic Party leadership race on Sunday.
“The Democratic Party is alive and ready to revolt,” Schlein said. “We achieved it, we made a small big revolution together and they didn’t see us coming.”
Former MEP Schlein said her party, which has found it difficult to mount solid opposition to the Italian right, “will pose a problem” for the government of Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Italian Brothers’ Party with neo-fascist roots.
Schlein rose to fame in the early 2020s when his small party, Coraggiosa (Brave), played a key role in preventing the far right from taking power in Emilia-Romagna, a traditionally left-wing region. Bonaccini won the region’s presidency and Schlein was named vice president, a position she vacated when she was elected deputy in the September general election.
Schlein, who is an Italian and American national and known for her interest in social justice issues, has been compared in Italy to US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. She rejoined the Democratic Party after leaving it in 2015, frustrated with the course she was taking then under then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
In a September interview with The Guardian newspaper, Schlein said he “couldn’t stand the PD any longer” after Renzi introduced his signature labor law with measures that make it easier for employers to fire and take on precarious contracts.
In the race for party leadership, some of Schlein’s priorities were the minimum wage, health care and the environment. He succeeds Enrico Letta, who announced in September that he would step down as PD leader after the elections that brought Meloni to power.
Schlein’s victory came as a surprise as the polls gave Bonaccini a clear advantage in his win. “The first thing I ask is to applaud Elly Schlein,” said Bonaccini. “I spoke to her and I congratulated her, [le deseo] good luck with the great responsibility he assumes at the head of the party; Elly won and I’m here to help.”
Many on the left hope that Schlein will revive the PD, whose popularity in polls hovers around 17%, and become a viable rival to Meloni, a beloved leader whose Brothers of Italy party has been steadily gaining strength since Matteo Salvini came to power in a coalition government with the League; and Forza Italia, by Silvio Berlusconi.
“We will work together in the interest of the country,” Schlein said. “We will work for unity, my commitment is to be the leader of everyone, to win again.”