Italy’s main opposition party, the centre-left Democratic Party, has a new leader. And it’s a surprise: in an open primary on Sunday, with more than a million people voting, the party’s supporters chose Elly Schlein, who won with 53.8% of the vote in a runoff against her more heavily-favored opponent, Stefano Bonaccini.
In the vote of party members, Bonaccini had a majority with 52.9%, well ahead of Schlein’s 34.9% and two other candidates in single figures. But when the contest was opened to supporters at large – something that Italy pioneered nearly twenty years ago – Schlein swept most of the northern and central regions, with Bonaccini holding only the more traditionalist south.
Both candidates were from the very left-leaning region of Emilia-Romagna, where Bonaccini is premier and Schlein was formerly his deputy. But otherwise they are very different: Bonaccini is a conventional middle-aged politician, identified with the party’s moderate wing, while Schlein is young (aged 36), bisexual, Swiss-born and very much on the left. She becomes the party’s first female leader, leading the opposition to Italy’s first female prime minister, post-Fascist Giorgia Meloni.
The Democratic Party has always been a broad church, with origins in both the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democrats. But consistent electoral success has eluded it. Although it has been in government for most of the last decade, it has generally been in unsatisfactory coalitions: with the centre-right in 2013-18, with the populist Five-Stars in 2019-21 and under technocratic national unity governments in 2011-13 and 2021-22.
Back in opposition since last September’s election, it is now trying to find its own voice. Its recent, broadly centrist, political line – associated particularly with former leader Matteo Renzi, although he left the party in 2019 – has not been working, so it makes sense that its supporters would want to try something different. Schlein is certainly that; Politico’s report on her election is headlined “Meet the anti-Renzi”.
The question, of course, is whether this is the particular sort of difference that the electorate is looking for. Comparisons are being made to Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States, neither a very auspicious case. But perhaps a better example would be Germany’s Social Democrats, which a few years ago were in a very similar position, bleeding support under moderate leadership after participation in broad coalition governments.
Their membership responded, in December 2019, by electing a new left-wing leadership. But that failed to excite the public either, and when it came to choosing its standard-bearer for the following election, the party turned to the more centrist option, Olaf Scholz, who had lost the 2019 leadership election but went on to beat the centre-right and take the party back into power.
The next Italian election is not due until 2027, and with Meloni’s government enjoying a solid majority the Democrats have plenty of time to try to sort themselves out. Schlein will have her work cut out, but it is far from a hopeless task. As I pointed out at the time, the parties now in opposition outvoted Meloni’s coalition quite comfortably; if they could only work together they would be well placed.
Time will tell whether the new leader can help in that regard. Her anti-establishment credentials may endear her to the Five-Stars, but they will not appreciate her promise to continue supporting aid to Ukraine (Schlein herself has Ukrainian Jewish ancestry). The centrists, on the other hand, will be suspicious of her leftism, although a left-wing Democratic Party may open up space for a more viable centrist force.
Since Meloni has her own problems of coalition unity, Italy could be in for a very interesting contest between its two young female leaders.
PS: Gregorio Sorgi at Politico now has a good report on Schlein’s win and what it might mean for the party’s future..