surprise victory

A former Obama campaign staffer is the first woman to lead Italy's main left-wing party

Elly Schlein's victory means that women now head the two largest parties in Italy
Elly Schlein hopes to appeal to young voters with her progressive platform.  
Elly Schlein hopes to appeal to young voters with her progressive platform.  
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A rising star of the Italian left has won election to the leadership of the Democratic Party, the country’s second-largest political group. Thirty-seven-year-old Elly Schlein will serve as the main opposition leader to Giorgia Meloni, the country’s far-right prime minister—the first time both of these roles have been held by women simultaneously.

Schlein was born in Switzerland to an Italian mother and an American father. She holds dual Italian-US citizenship, obtained a law degree from the University of Bologna, and has previously lived in the US, working on former president Barack Obama’s electoral campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Schlein served in the European Parliament for a five-year term between 2014 and 2019, but became more prominent on the Italian political scene the following year.

In 2020, Schlein’s campaign proved decisive in securing an election win for the center-left coalition in Emilia-Romagna, a traditionally left-wing region in Northern Italy that was seeing a rise in right-wing preferences. She was the most-voted candidate in the election and was appointed deputy to the region’s newly elected president, Stefano Bonaccini. Schlein left that role in 2022 to run in the parliamentary election, winning a seat in the Chamber of Deputies.

Ironically, it was Bonaccini that Schlein beat on Sunday (Feb. 26) to succeed outgoing Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta, winning 54% of the nearly 1 million votes cast. Schlein’s election marks a shift to the left for a party that had recently sought to occupy a more centrist place in Italian politics. An openly bisexual woman, she has taken a progressive stance on issues like same-sex marriage, the environment, and the migrant crisis—views that have, among other things, led to comparisons with US Democratic Party lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Where Schlein and Meloni stand on key issues

Immigration: Meloni made Europe’s refugee crisis a cornerstone of her political rhetoric during her campaign in the general election after stating in her 2021 biography that mass migration dilutes ethnic identity. Schlein has sharply criticized the Italian government’s current immigration policy, advocating for a humanitarian response to the country’s influx of refugees.

Civil rights: Meloni made headlines when she demanded that the Italian state broadcaster ban an episode of the popular children’s television show Peppa Pig that featured a lesbian couple, saying “we cannot accept gender indoctrination.” Gay marriage is not legal in Italy and the current government has called same-sex parenting “not normal.” Schlein is openly bisexual and has campaigned heavily on progressive social issues.

Ukraine: Meloni has remained a staunch supporter of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, despite members of her governing coalition blaming the Ukrainian leader for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although the Democratic Party has supported sending military aid to Ukraine, Schlein has express doubt about sending additional arms, saying, “as a pacifist, I don’t think that weapons alone will end the war.”

Environment: A former member of Italy’s green party, Schlein supports heavy investment in renewable energy sources and has criticized nuclear energy. Meloni has said that radical green policies will make Europe “lose thousands of companies and millions of jobs,” but has also said mitigating climate change is a priority for her government.

Identity: Meloni has vowed to protect Italians from a “genocide against Christians” and said that she will defend the values of “God, country, and family” as prime minister. In her previous role as vice-president of Emilia-Romagna, Schlein was in charge of promoting social equity.

Labor Unions: Schlein has promised to involve labor unions in her party’s leadership, while Meloni has seen criticism and protests from unions across Italy.


“Not all female leadership helps women ... It helps nothing to have a female premier if all the rights for other women are overturned, including control over their own bodies.” –Schlein said at a campaign rally in Festa dell’Unità in Modena during the general election last year, arguing that Meloni’s victory would not be a substantive victory for Italian women.

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