4 Things to Know About Elly Schlein, Face of Italy's Largest Opposition Party

| Thu, 03/09/2023 - 10:00
Elly Schlein campaigning in Turin in February 2023

37-year-old Elly Schlein took home a surprise victory at last month’s primary for the new leadership of the struggling Partito Democratico (the center-left Democratic Party or PD, Italy’s largest opposition party). Having defeated the establishment candidate and projected winner, Stefano Bonaccini, Schlein is now the first woman and openly LGBTQI+ person to lead the PD, and the youngest person ever to hold the powerful position of party secretary.

Curiosity and commentary about Schlein are on the rise from all sides, spurred on, too, by International Women’s Day celebrations and by the official kickoff of Schlein’s tenure on March 12. Here’s a rundown of who this Italian-Swiss-American is — yes, she holds all three citizenships — and how she might influence Italian politics in the future.

1: Her family history shows the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Elena Ethel “Elly” Schlein was born in 1985 in Lugano, Switzerland to an Italian mother and Jewish-American father. Her mother is a professor of public law, her father a political scientist and her sister a career diplomat. 

Schlein’s maternal grandfather, Agostino Viviani, was a lawyer and fervent antifascist and her paternal grandfather, Harry Schlein, came from an Eastern European family “that experienced the tragedies of the 20th century and immigrated to the United States,” according to the politician’s official website.

2: Despite those familial influences, Schlein took a winding path to politics, and cut her teeth on Barack Obama’s campaign trail. 

After completing high school in Switzerland, Schlein headed to Italy to attend the University of Bologna (in the traditionally left-leaning region of Emilia-Romagna). She began studying art and filmmaking but switched to law. It was at this time that she got deeply involved in campus politics. 

In 2008, Schlein flew to Chicago to volunteer for Barack Obama’s grassroots presidential campaign against Senator John McCain. Following Obama’s victory, she returned to Bologna to complete her law degree. She later went back to the US to work on Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. 

3: Schlein’s victory was decisive, but not exactly crushing.

Schlein garnered 53.8% of the votes, defeating the favorite, Emilia-Romagna governor Stefano Bonaccini, who received 46.2%. (Schlein worked directly alongside Bonaccini previously in her role as vice governor of the region, which she held from February 2020 until October 2022. Bonaccini has expressed his support for Schlein in her new, if unexpected, position.)

Though Schlein’s margin of victory was “wide but not overwhelming,” as Italian newswire ANSA described it, many people — particularly young Italians — see her triumph as a signal of the PD’s potential shift to the left (and away from the party’s traditionally centrist positions). 

With her political star on the rise, Schlein is often compared with progressive US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a political firebrand who defeated a liberal-establishment primary opponent in 2019 to become, at the time, the youngest member elected to Congress. 

4: Schlein has said that the PD will be “a problem” for Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Meloni’s reactions have been tempered.

Schlein is poised to become an ever more present political thorn in the side of the current prime minister, Giorgia Meloni — a hard-line conservative from the ultra-right wing Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) party. 

Meloni also made history in 2022 when her party won the most seats at the general election, putting her on the fast track to premiership. In October, Meloni became Italy's first female prime minister.

Meloni’s and Schlein’s politics, however, could not be more at odds. Schlein is a pro-Europe, pro-labor leftist, environmentalist and self-proclaimed feminist who is a strong proponent of establishing a minimum wage, better funding for healthcare, protecting immigration and expanding LGBTQI+ rights. In 2020, she came out as bisexual; as of this writing, she is in a relationship with a woman.

Meloni, on the other hand, is a far-right Eurosceptic, anti-immigration, anti-abortion, Italy-first nationalist who frequently drew upon “God, fatherland and family” rhetoric in her campaign. In her teens, Meloni was part of the youth faction of the now-defunct neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement), though she has distanced herself from such associations.

When Schlein was elected, Meloni offered her congratulations, saying, “I hope the election of a young woman to lead [the PD] can help the left look forward and not backward.” 

Meloni also issued a statement of solidarity with Schlein on March 9 after anti-semitic graffiti directed at the incoming PD secretary appeared on a wall in Viterbo on the same day.