Italy's left sees hope in young progressive candidate for premier

Elly Schlein is facing off against far-right leader Giorgia Meloni to become Italy’s first female premier. Ms. Schlein, who volunteered on former President Obama’s presidential campaigns, wants to create a progressive coalition that might unite the Italian left.

Marco Vasini/AP
Elly Schlein speaks during an electoral rally in Modena, Italy, Sept. 2, 2022. Ms. Schlein, a U.S.-Italian national, is running in Italy's election for premier on a platform advocating social justice.

As far-right leader Giorgia Meloni’s push to become Italy’s first female premier gathers momentum, the country’s fractured left is offering voters a contrasting style of feminist politics.

Elly Schlein, a 37-year-old U.S.-Italian national who grew up in Switzerland, cut her political organizing chops on two campaigns for former U.S. President Barack Obama. She is often compared with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because of her platform advocating social justice.

Ms. Schlein, a former deputy in the European Parliament, gained national attention in Italy 2 1/2 years ago when she played a key role in blocking the right from taking power in her traditionally left-leaning region of Emilia-Romagna.

She famously confronted right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini at the time for his repeated failure to vote on immigration policy while sitting in the European Parliament, even though he gave fiery speeches at home against migrants.

Ms. Schlein is now taking on Ms. Meloni, bringing a thoughtful, policy-packed voice to the Italian left’s national campaign in a bid to prevent what opinion polls suggest is an inevitable victory for a right-wing coalition.

The 45-year-old Ms. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy Party consistently has led polls going into the Sept. 25 parliamentary vote, putting her in position to be tapped as premier.

“Not all female leadership helps women,’’ Ms. Schlein told an audience of several hundred at a weekend campaign rally at the Festa dell’Unita in Modena.

“It helps nothing to have a female premier if all the rights for other women are overturned, including control over their own bodies,” she said, referring to growing concerns that Ms. Meloni would move to limit abortion.

As vice president of Emilia-Romagna in charge of equality and environmental programs since 2020, Ms. Schlein has championed the rights of women, youth, migrants, and the LGBTQ community.

She faults Italy’s current political class with creating “paternalistic” policies that fail to consult the people they affect. In 2015, she quit the center-left Democratic Party (PD) over differences in the direction it was taking under Matteo Renzi, who was party leader and premier at the time.

In this election, Ms. Schlein remains outside the party structure, running as an independent candidate on the PD’s Democratic and Progressive Italy list.

Drafting in Ms. Schlein to excite undecided voters and tap the youth vote is part of Democratic Party chairman Enrico Letta’s long-term efforts to create a progressive coalition that might heal the Italian left’s divisions.

But that effort failed miserably to bring into being an electoral coalition on the left for this vote. That has handed a clear advantage to the right-wing coalition made up of Ms. Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy, Mr. Salvini’s right-wing League, and three-time former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia.

“It is not a secret that I hoped for a broader coalition,’’ Ms. Schlein told The Associated Press in Modena, speaking in her preferred language, Italian. “This didn’t happen because of some tactical decisions, which I think were a mistake.”

Mr. Letta ruled out an election alliance with one-time ally, the populist 5-Star Movement, after it helped topple Premier Mario Draghi’s national unity government in July, against the wishes of the left.

And centrist parties refused to join Mr. Letta after he aligned with smaller parties further to the left.

On the campaign trail, the left’s proposals – including a minimum salary, limiting short-term jobs, and moving toward renewable energy sources – are often drowned out by right-wing rhetoric and tactics.

Ms. Meloni shocked opponents by posting on social media a video that purported to show a woman being raped in the street by an asylum-seeker. Mr. Salvini, meanwhile, has made repeated visits to overcrowded migrant centers, highlighting the problem even as arrivals are far below previous peaks.

“It is clear that we need to try to invert that right-wing rhetoric,” Ms. Schlein said. “That is a rhetoric that finds an enemy a day, against which to hurl all the social anger, but which in reality does not give any solutions to the problems of the people. It is a strategy as old as it is cynical.’’

“You can dress things up and try to trick people,” she added. “It is up to us to unmask this deceit for a better future.”

In her appearances, Ms. Schlein spouts policy in rapid-fire speeches. She doesn’t shy away from addressing fears, particularly among Italy’s allies, and especially in Europe, that Ms. Meloni and her party’s neo-fascist roots present a threat to democracy.

“Giorgia Meloni’s models are [former U.S. President Donald] Trump, who fomented the attack on the Capitol ... and [Hungarian President Viktor] Orban, who as recently as a month and a half ago said that races shouldn’t be mixed and who has substantially canceled the right of asylum in his country and who creates laws against the LGBTQ community,” Ms. Schlein told the AP.

Ms. Schlein cut a popular figure at Modena’s Fest dell’Unita, a traditional leftist gathering that combines the atmosphere of a country fair with politicking. She was greeted with applause when she entered a food tent, and was stopped by admirers as she walked along the midway.

Her political message, not unexpectedly, won praise in the heartland of Emilia-Romagna, which she adopted as her home region after graduating from law school in Bologna.

Martina Lolli, a 24-year-old hairstylist from Modena, found strength in Ms. Schlein’s feminist message. She said, “As a woman, I have hope that feminine solidarity, which I believe in, can change something, as Elly said.’’

“I am very worried, if the other woman wins,’’ Ms. Lolli added, referring to Ms. Meloni. “If she wins I will not feel represented. At least I don’t want to be represented by a political party that denies my rights.”

Alessandro Corradi, a lifetime left-wing voter, walked away from the rally clutching a signed copy of Ms. Schlein’s just-published book, impressed by her ideas.

“She has proposals, unlike politicians who only listen to polls and try to win votes, saying trite and coy things that are dull and repetitive,’’ said Mr. Corradi, a bank employee who said the fractious state of the left “makes me want to cry.”

Ms. Schlein’s politics are untested on the national stage, and like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, her emphasis on redistributing resources to the most fragile is broadly seen as left of the mainstream. But the fact that Mr. Letta not only tapped her, but has highlighted her role in his own appearances, suggests bigger things await.

“I think she has a lot of potential, because she has this mix of grassroots support and international connections, and she is actually not ideological,’’ said Natalie Tocci, director of the International Affairs Institute, a think tank.

Ms. Schlein believes the left can still prevail in this month’s election. She is focusing on the 40% of voters who, polls indicate, are undecided or are considering abstaining.

“I have never campaigned in an election where I didn’t have opinion polls to overturn,’’ Ms. Schlein said, citing both the 2020 Italian regional elections and her volunteer work on the Obama campaigns. “I hope that this happens also in this short, difficult campaign.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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