Elly Schlein Will Tilt Italy’s Democrats to the Left, but Don’t Expect Revolutionary Change

Italy’s Democratic primary handed victory to Elly Schlein, the most left-wing leader in the party’s history. Her success relied on mobilizing nonmembers — but she faces an uphill struggle overhauling a party long in thrall to corporate liberalism.

New leader of Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) Elly Schlein during a TV interview on February 21, 2023 in Rome, Italy. (Antonio Masiello / Getty Images)

Elly Schlein is to become the new leader of Italy’s Democratic Party (PD). In some respects, her victory in Sunday’s primary was clearly something of a breakthrough. Not only is Schlein young — at thirty-seven years old — and an openly bisexual woman, but she is a relatively left-wing figure who had earlier quit the PD in 2015, in dispute with the neoliberal direction imposed on the party by then prime minister Matteo Renzi. Having returned to PD ranks just a few weeks ago to run for the leadership, she has become the first female leader — segretaria, as Italians would say — of the country’s main center-left party.

Schlein was propelled to victory by a significant mobilization in the primaries (which saw about one million voters — a decent turnout, if a sharp decline from previous contests). In so doing, she overturned the earlier result in the vote held among party members alone, in which the more right-wing candidate — Stefano Bonaccini, who is president of the Emilia-Romagna region — had prevailed.

Schlein’s victory was based on a program that says some distinctly left-wing things about labor precarity, the minimum wage (Italy doesn’t have one), equal marriage, and immigration. But she also won with the backing of most of the PD national leadership, meaning the same figures who supported a series of neoliberal leaders and “national-unity” governments in recent years, just as Schlein herself worked side by side with Bonaccini in regional government.

Schlein built her base by playing on her position as both internal to the party and an “outsider.” But while this ambiguity was surely useful in this contest, it cannot be reproduced forever. How will the contradiction between Schlein’s left-wing arguments and the PD’s neoliberal history be resolved in the long run? Is it even possible to be a “leftist” in the PD?

Tough Job

A piece of the left-wing electorate, lacking other possible points of reference, clearly decided to bet on the alternative that Schlein represents. It expressed its demand for radicalism and change within the space that was available to it: i.e., through the Democratic primaries.

In the long transition away from Italy’s postwar party system, the PD created in 2007 represents both an American-style big-tent political space and a traditional Italian-style party. It may be affected by partly external mobilizations coming from the Left, as in this case. But the PD maintains a national and local leadership structure that has over time made it one of the main points of reference for the domestic and international establishment. Real left-wing politics requires, in one way or another, conflict with this establishment. It is no accident that no one has managed to build the Left through the PD before. Schlein’s task is to prove that she can.

On Sunday night, as she was declared the winner, Schlein said her party would have “a clear line centered on the fight against all forms of inequality, against precarity, for decent work, and to address the climate emergency with the utmost urgency and seriousness.” These are not words we are used to hearing from the top leader of the PD. Hearing Schlein begin her leadership by talking about wages, precarity, and the climate emergency is quite remarkable, for all those who saw the party born in 2007 with then leader Walter Veltroni’s speech at Lingotto — a historic FIAT auto plant turned into a convention and shopping center — entirely built around the centrality of business and individual competition. Or even more so those who remember 2014–16 Democratic prime minister Renzi, who echoed Silvio Berlusconi and employer federation Confindustria’s talking points on the need to make firing workers easier to incentivize hiring.

It is impossible to deny Schlein’s “disruptive” effect — both in terms of her biography and political discourse — in a PD that was created as a liberal-democratic party and has, in the last fifteen years, supported some of the most neoliberal and anti-popular policies in recent Italian history. A young woman who is in a relationship with another young woman, she also spent the last seven years outside the Democratic Party, first in Giuseppe “Pippo” Civati’s Possibile and then, in Emilia-Romagna region, heading the “Coraggiosa” green-progressive list, before running as a PD ally in last September’s general election.

Paradoxically, even the defeated centrist candidate Bonaccini’s rival bid — while drawing on supporters from the Renzi era — was substantially further left than the program on which the PD first emerged and indeed policies it has carried out in recent years. For instance, all the primary candidates declared themselves in favor of the legal minimum wage and equal marriage for same-sex couples — two measures that the PD has never implemented in its long years in government.

It’s well-known that it’s easier for an opposition party to raise radical proposals. But there’s something more to it than that: the impression is that we are facing a changed historical moment, in which the Democratic Party as we have known it these past fifteen years has little future. In September’s general elections it presented itself as a choice for continuity with Mario Draghi — the former European Central Bank (ECB) chief who headed a “national unity” government in 2021–22. Its defeat was bound to force a change of course.

The neoliberalism with progressive hues on which basis Veltroni founded the PD in 2007 — even then a rather out-of-date copy of the 1990s Third Way of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton — is no longer a political option in today’s West. A PD whose vote is ever more associated with higher levels of education and income and with residence in the central districts of large metropolises, while working-class turnout plummets, clearly needs to change if it is not to die. And if the aim was indeed “change,” it was clear that Schlein better represented it in this contest.

Misalignment, Realignment

The choice between Schlein and Bonaccini can be read through many different lenses: left versus right within the party, but also millennial versus Gen X, cosmopolitan bourgeoisie versus provincial popular layers, opinion campaigns versus the power of local government. For once, the Democrats did not vote in terms of a choice between the forces that had combined in the party’s initial creation — the Democrats of the Left (ex-Communist) and Margherita (Christian-democratic).

In this sense, the 2023 primaries seem to have been the first 100 percent “Democratic Party” primaries, in which preexisting memberships of the Left or else Catholic-democratic traditions were not decisive.

On the contrary: the “right-wing” candidate was a classic product of the transition from Communist Party to liberal center in the historically left-wing Emilia region, whereas the “left-wing” candidate began her activism in Barack Obama’s campaign for the 2008 US presidential election. The PD’s either post-Communist or post-Christian-democratic leaders were distributed more or less indistinctly on either side of this leadership race, unlike in previous contests.

These were also the first primaries whose outcome was truly uncertain — a contest organized to choose a new leadership for the PD and not simply to crown the anointed leader with a landslide vote. Unsurprisingly, also for the first time, the primary vote open to ordinary voters overturned the result as expressed by PD members themselves, who had preferred Bonaccini. The PD is surely the only organization in the world that has nonmembers elect its leadership — that is, through primaries that do not decide its candidate for an election but the main leader of the party itself, a bizarre practice now entrenched in Italian center-left tradition. On the other hand, when a Democratic Party that took more than five million votes in the last general election has little more than 150,000 members, the crisis of representation is obvious, and primaries are the tool — if a highly contradictory one — that the PD has adopted to deal with this problem.

In a leadership tussle marked by a spirit of “fair play” (and it could not have been otherwise, given that Bonaccini and Schlein were, till last October, president and vice president of the same regional administration in Emilia-Romagna), the only blows struck were rival accusations of being “supported by the party apparatus.” The fact that this would be a chief indictment, in a race to become leader of this same apparatus, is another of the typical paradoxes of such a primary process.

Bonaccini told Il Quotidiano Nazionale that far from him being the “old PD,” the “apparatus of losers supports Elly Schlein.” She had the backing of outgoing leader Enrico Letta, two heavy hitters like former Christian-Democrat Dario Franceschini (PD leader in 2009), and Andrea Orlando (of the old Democrats of the Left), as well as returning recent splitters like Roberto Speranza and 2009–13 PD leader Pierluigi Bersani. Conversely, Bonaccini was supported only by currents previously aligned with Renzi. Yet, moving from the level of national big hitters to the level of local and regional government, we find the situation reversed: all the PD regional presidents, a plethora of mayors, and the overwhelming majority of local party leaders and cadres, backed Bonaccini.

The rift between national-level grandees’ support for Schlein and local administrators’ and cadres’ backing for Bonaccini already signaled the breakdown of traditional chains of representation. There were whole territories where Democratic Party circles voted for Schlein in open disobedience of the local party apparatus. This was, then, a member revolt, a sign of the leadership structure’s diminishing grip on the party, amplified by the vote in the open primaries.

The impression is that among the more than half a million people who voted for Schlein, there surely was a component of the traditional PD electorate tired of defeats, the party’s lack of identity and inconsistent opposition to Giorgia Meloni’s far-right government. But so, too, a piece of the electorate that is not loyal to the PD and may have voted for the more progressive Green-Left alliance or else the Five Star Movement in the last elections, but took this primary as an opportunity to cast a ballot for the Left, even in a party it does not consider its own.

Schlein’s gamble, in this sense, was a very bold one: her campaign was entirely fought within the PD, without any bargaining with organized forces outside it, not even locally — but while still betting that the segment of the electorate she had built ties with in her years of self-exile from the PD would still turn out for her. And it did.

This result should give serious pause for thought to the leaders of any organized force on the political and social left. Hundreds of thousands of left-wingers, not registered with the Democratic Party and in part not even its voters, chose — either individually or on a completely informal basis — to vote in the primaries of a party that is not their own, bypassing any organized membership, using the opportunity that the PD primaries offered to make a political signal.

In this sense, the primaries confirmed themselves as a powerful tool for outward attraction. For left-wing voters who lack clear points of reference to identify with, the Democratic Party primary gave them the opportunity to vote for a candidate they liked: no matter if this was not a general election but one for an internal party body. Voting is increasingly a form of participation untied from any organized membership: voters choose who they prefer within a given contest, ignoring any constraint other than individual preference.

Within this context, the PD maintains a political centrality in the broader center-left, as a force that others can make their way into. The Left outside of the party has the satisfaction that it somehow managed to produce both Schlein’s candidacy (having hosted many a talk by her) and a part of her electorate in the primaries. This is, however, a meager consolation, given its evident inability to create a credible alternative, both to Schlein herself (who after seven years has precisely returned to the PD, having found little outside) and especially vis-à-vis the people who decided to support her in the primaries and who now, perhaps, might decide to join the Democratic Party permanently. Just as they might abandon all collective participation if Schlein’s leadership proves to be an only brief interlude, as in the case of some of her predecessors.

Opposition and Alternative

There would, in all likelihood, have been no Elly Schlein to lead the PD if there had been no Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The presence of a woman at the helm of the first radical-right-led government in the Republic’s history challenged the center-left at the level of leadership, producing a PD segretaria who really seems to be the opposite of Meloni in every way.

Meloni’s loyal activism in the local party branch, versus Schlein’s eternal search for political identity; a hotel-school diploma versus a master’s degree; self-representation as a “traditional” mother versus openly bisexual orientation; and a border-obsessed nationalism versus battles in defense of migrants. Meloni and Schlein embody two opposite ends of the political stage, though not incompatible ones, given their shared underlying assumptions about Italy’s Euro-Atlantic international positioning and the compatibility of any political choice with capitalist order.

With Schlein’s victory, the Right offers provocative “celebrations” of the Left’s alleged own goal. It seems clear that the fascio-trash press will do all it can to pigeonhole Schlein into the stereotype of the “radical chic” bourgeois who wages moralistic battles over immigration and civil rights while the starving people are defended only by the most reactionary right.

It is no accident that poverty, wages, labor, and inequality were the focus of Schlein’s debut speech: escaping the stereotype that is being attached to her is the only chance she has to build an opposition that really speaks to the majority of people, breaking through the binary between progressive neoliberalism and conservative populism that dominates Western politics. Schlein, while interpreting in part the same need for social, political, and generational change, is not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she knows her biography is different.

The uber-neoliberal Azione-Italia Viva (the rival electoral outfit put together by Renzi and his allies) has been quick to compare Schlein to Jeremy Corbyn, in a typical case of “things that the Right says would be cool if they were true.” Azione-Italia Viva surely seeks to attract the more centrist components of the PD, both from its political class and its electorate. These components are not limited only to the ex-Renzian current: let’s not forget that Schlein’s two big supporters, Franceschini and Orlando, were ministers in the Draghi government until a few months ago, and that the man who proposed her candidacy, Letta, is the same leader who decided to make the center-left’s 2022 election campaign about continuity with Draghi. Not to mention the system of local, national, and international relations that has made the PD over the past fifteen years first and foremost a supplier of trained administrators to the state and a guarantor of established balances between the most varied actors, from unions to the ECB.

The risk is that Schlein will not be a “Corbyn” in the sense that she will remain unable truly to break with progressive neoliberalism, yet will still be treated by media and opponents as if she were. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the PD advances timid, moderately left-wing proposals on wages, redistribution, rights, and environmentalism, the Right slaughters them as if they are faced with a revolutionary platform, and the Left finds itself defending a barricade that is not even its own.

More than Corbyn, in this scenario Schlein would find herself emulating Benoît Hamon, who took over the leadership of the French Socialist Party to bring it back to the Left after the failure of François Hollande’s presidency, but managed in the process to lose both the left-wing and centrist votes, thereby taking his party to an all-time low of 6 percent in the 2017 presidential election.

For that matter, without going too far, Nicola Zingaretti, in 2019, was also elected to lead the PD with a platform of rupture with Renzian neoliberalism, but without proposing an alternative other than a return to a 1990s-style “normal center-left.” Reversing the course of progressive neoliberalism implies ruptures and conflicts, not a simple change of leadership.

In the background remains the prospect of rebuilding a center-left front capable of challenging the Right’s grip on national high office. This would mean resuming the initiative that failed with the fall, in early 2021, of Giuseppe Conte’s second government, which had united the Five Star Movement and the Democrats. His administration met its end both because of outside attacks and the political inconsistency of the project itself. The center-left is the political option of compromise, of an interclass pact between different social interests that find convergence in the name of a common political perspective. This is not the option that this writer would like best, but is at least one being concretely talked about.

Schlein’s talking points surely are more sharply left-wing than those of recent center-left leaders. But it remains unclear how much they are shared by her party and what social and political bloc is meant to be built around them. The PD was born as a party without organic ties to class organizations. So, will the Schlein leadership try to build such ties, a bit like the Corbyn Labour leadership’s alliance with part of the trade union movement? Or will it try to make the PD itself a mass force, despite the collapse in membership — a trend that has showed no sign of abating, ever since the party was born?

What compatibility will be sought with those vast sectors of the PD that essentially conceive of themselves as the political referents of the national and international establishment? And what compromise will be proposed to those segments of the economic elite who so implacably opposed even the mild reformism of Conte’s second, center-left government? Even a simple center-left force needs deep roots in different sectors of society, a willingness to represent their demands, and an ability to reconcile them in a common reforming vision. Where, in today’s Italy, is the potential social compromise that a new center-left would represent?

The impression, for now, is that Schlein has been chosen more as a leader of the opposition — an effective media counterbalance to Meloni — more than as a point of reference for a new proposal for government. Her election, after all, brings the PD closer to potential allies of the Five Star Movement, not to mention the Green-Left alliance, with the risk of having three parties competing for the same space, which, moreover, is not ever so electorally vast. The worst outcome, among all possible ones, is the “Benoît Hamon” scenario: a political proposal slaughtered by the Right and unable to engage the Left, locked in the caricature of the “metropolitan-elite Left isolated from the people,” whose eventual failure would bring yet another wave of disappointment.

Yet it would be short-sighted to deny that Schlein’s election signals the awakening — even if a contradictory one — of a part of the progressive electorate, and a clear shift to the left in the axis of public debate. This context would seem an advantageous one for the organized forces of the Left, for trade unions and social movements, were it not for the weakness of these actors at this stage. But if at PD headquarters there will now be talk — however insufficient and vague — of the fight against inequality, improving working conditions, the green transition, and universal welfare and public services, it’s up to us to fight on these issues in the streets and squares of Italy.