On February 26, Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) took an unexpected turn to the left. Elly Schlein, an openly bisexual 37-year-old woman who had quit the party eight years earlier, won the primaries and became the first woman to lead it since its inception in 2007. Given Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right agenda, many eyes are on the new PD leader, whom the international press has dubbed “Italy’s AOC.”
Schlein won the election by promoting an openly radical agenda on issues such as labor insecurity, Italy’s absence of a legal minimum-wage scheme, same-sex marriage, and immigration. For years, the PD has given lip service to the importance of these issues, but has never been able (or willing) to fully commit to a serious agenda to address them. While it is easier for an opposition party to be critical, Schlein has at disposal four years to reorganize a fragmented left and to deliver on these issues until the next elections.
Schlein’s defeat of Stefano Bonaccini, a PD insider, signals the exasperation of Italy’s left of center with the party’s centrist moderation. Her posture as an outsider intent on shifting the party to the left attracted many disaffected voters that had long lost any hope in the PD as a party of change.
Schlein herself had been among them. Though she started her political career as an activist of the PD’s youth movement, her relationship with the party was never an easy one. Originally a young in-house talent, she soon became a thorn in the party’s side. In 2013, she became the voice of #OccupyPD, a movement born to protest party turncoats, and quit the party shortly thereafter, only returning in 2022. She secured her victory in the primary by mobilizing more than 500,000 non–party members, who are permitted to vote in the primary by the PD’s peculiar charter.
The dissonance between the party’s political offer and what many Italians want to hear from the country’s main progressive force is unsurprising. Now, Schlein needs to convince them that they can be a part of the PD’s reinvention. Promising “a platform that tackles all forms of inequality, precariousness, and the climate emergency with the utmost urgency,” she represents a potential change in the PD’s identity, a move from a party devoted to governing at all costs to one capable of taking on a more oppositional character. The most right-wing government in the history of Italian democracy is in power, and the PD has never once won an election since its establishment in 2007. While it has governed through a number of incompatible coalitions over the years, it has failed to expand its electoral base. On the contrary, the party dropped from over 12 million votes in 2008 to under 5.5 million in 2022 elections.
As leader of the opposition, Schlein has started on the right foot, attacking Meloni on her management of yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean, a tack often neglected by her predecessors. Inevitably, her performance will be measured on whether she can bring the party back into government. Her first challenge will be to win over the party base that voted predominantly for Bonaccini. To do so, she will have to make important concessions to Bonaccini’s powerful centrist group within the party, the first being his appointment as president of the party’s national assembly.
This, of course, will limit her range, a weakness made all the more serious by the fact that Schlein, though supported by a few of the party’s most important figures, became a member of the PD only in order to run for the primaries. With few close allies and staff, the new leader risks finding herself at the mercy of powerful intraparty forces that, perceiving her as a threat to the status quo, are likely to do whatever they can to contain any radical shifts to the left—while using her public image to effect a purely cosmetic “change.”
Schlein finds herself in the unenviable position of having to ride the disaffection of those who put her in power, while at the same time being careful not to displease those who for years have shaped and defended the party’s course. In this, she is helped by the fact that people perceive her as both part of and against the system. Yet that aura won’t last forever, especially when the next election rolls around. A number of obstacles stand in her way.
The first is tied to the demographic composition of the PD’s electorate. Although we should be wary of any essentialist reading of electoral data, recent elections have repeatedly shown that the PD does well in big cities and among wealthier and more educated segments of the population. It’s accordingly often perceived as a modern, cosmopolitan party that represents a minority and struggles to attract voters from smaller towns, in lower income brackets, and with less gainful employment.
In this respect, Schlein is not AOC; she can and will be perceived as typifying those intellectual middle classes against which much populist anger has been directed. Her background—she’s the granddaughter of an Italian senator and daughter of a professor emeritus of political science—has been used to divorce her from the causes she aims to embody. Within weeks of her victory, she has been attacked from left and right, with varying degrees of anti-Semitic stereotyping, and portrayed as the prototype of the woke, liberal leader focused on identity politics rather than on the material difficulties of everyday life. Though she rightly abstains from responding to these representations, she will need to find a way to counteract the idea that she’s detached from the real needs of Italians.
The second issue is tied to the nature of Italy’s electoral system, which requires parties to form a coalition in order to win elections. In other words, the PD cannot govern on its own, and it will be one of Schlein’s major tasks to maintain relations with the populist, idiosyncratic Five Star Movement (M5S) on one hand and the pro-market centrists led by former PD leader Matteo Renzi and Carlo Calenda on the other. And although Schlein’s platform has more in common with the M5S than with Renzi, who inspired her exit from the party, it is unclear whether the party’s centrist groups will accept an alliance with them—especially now that the M5S’s position against sending weapons to Ukraine starkly contrasts with the PD’s age-old loyalty to NATO.
Ultimately, however, we must avoid the mistake of placing history in the hands of a single person. Schlein’s election has opened a new space for debate over policies that have long been part of left-wing discourse and that are urgently needed. Until a few months ago, nobody in the wider field of left politics could have dreamed of an interlocutor like her within what still is the largest progressive party in Italy, no matter how much skepticism is aimed at it. Grassroots organizations, movements, and trade unions should grasp the opportunity to prove that this hesitant—and in some cases reluctant—fluctuation to the left is not only positive but a necessary step to bring about much-needed change and convince those segments of the population that have lost all trust in participatory democracy.