Elly Schlein: The Italian Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Many consider Elly Schlein the Italian answer to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and somehow the comparison does make sense.

Elly Schlein
Sinigagl / CC BY-SA

Many consider Elly Schlein the Italian answer to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and somehow the comparison does make sense

By Isabella De Silvestro

The last months have seen the appearance in newspapers and political talk-shows of a new figure of Italian politics: Elly Schlein, the recently elected vice-president of the Emilia-Romagna region. Many have already called her the Italian Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and somehow the comparison does make sense.

Schlein, born in 1985, is young, leftist, environmentalist, feminist and — as she remarked during the talk-show L’Assedio presented by Daria Bignardi — also bisexual: basically, a mix of all what a consistent part of Italians have demonstrated to hate. So, how is it possible that, at a very bad time for the Italian left and progressive parties, Schlein managed to be the most voted candidate at the regional elections, winning over more popular right-wing personalities of Matteo Salvini’s League and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy? Maybe precisely due to her beliefs that some could define “radical.”

Surely she has shown a certain ability to communicate clearly and resolutely her ideas. This ability, together with her charismatic attitude, has attracted the attention of both the Italian and international press. But besides all that, what makes her different from other Italian politicians is that, unlike most members of the progressive Democratic Party, Schlein is not concerned about maintaining an impartial or conciliating position on decisive and much discussed matters, and this may have gained her the sympathy of a big chunk of Emilia-Romagna’s left-wing electorate.

The movie “Aprile” became famous in Italy thanks to the cult scene in which the director and actor Nanni Moretti — best known for his leftist ideas — while watching a televised debate between the former Democratic Party sectretary Massimo D’Alema and Silvio Berlusconi, cries out at the television: “Say something leftist, D’Alema! Say something, even non-leftist! Just say something!” This could appear just as an Italian pop-culture anecdote, but it actually represents the widespread discomfort that has been tormenting Italian left-wing voters in the last couple of decades, especially after Renzi’s centrist leadership.

According to a study by the sociologist Maria Paola Foggiano, half of those who do not feel represented by any party, are leftists or moderate leftists. This data is symptomatic of the party identification crisis experienced by a portion of this electorate which, while it continues to recognize itself in this ideological category, in the 2018 elections it expressed its dissatisfaction by voting down the Democratic Party. Many of those “orphans” converged on the Sardine movement, which played a very important role in contrasting Matteo Salvini’s electoral campaign. However, this movement wasn’t an option at the ballot box, as it hasn’t still formed a party. Therefore, Schlein represented a new option in Emilia-Romagna, a traditionally “red region,” running for the presidency with a small independent list called Brave Emilia-Romagna.

Even if she can be considered an outsider, she isn’t new to politics. Indeed, while studying Law, Schlein flew to Chicago to volunteer for Barack Obama’s 2008 electoral campaign. Does this sound familiar? Maybe it’s because of the resemblance with the first important political experience of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who played an active role in Bernie Sanders’ electoral campaign in 2016, when he was beaten by Hilary Clinton at the Democratic Party primaries.

Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t share with Schlein just the young age and the early political interests, as also many personal aspects seem to unite them. Both have mixed origins (Ocasio’s parents are Puerto-Rican but she was born in New York, Schlein is an Italian-American born and raised in Switzerland), and they also share ideas and values, as they collocate themselves at the left of the respective Democratic parties. Ocasio-Cortez even defines herself as a “democratic socialist” and embodies a renewed way of doing politics, representing workers and minorities, and questioning the contradictions, and inequalities of the capitalist system.

Italian newspapers started to notice Elly Schlein for the “Occupy PD” initiative, born to protest against the 101 deputies that scuttled the election of Romano Prodi as President of the Republic, and against the alliances of the Democratic Party with centrist and center-right parties. The initiative was launched by young members of the DP, mostly between 20 and 30 years old, who didn’t want the party — indirect heir of the Italian Communist Party — to lose its original egalitarian spirit, as it was ageing and getting closer to right-wing stances more and more every year. As a consequence, the gap between the ruling class and the population had become wider, and Schlein claimed not to feel represented by a party that didn’t fully support the right to get married for same-sex couples, and that invested on drillings instead of sustainability; so, despite all the efforts to renew the party, she finally decided to leave it. “After all, we have always said that it is not a generational battle, but a mentality battle,” Schlein said in an interview with Termometro Politico.

The battles carried out by the Italian politician, indeed, are very similar to the ones held by Ocasio-Cortez, who, even without leaving the American Democratic Party, faced the establishment of richer and more powerful members, opposing them with a new communication style and a way more radical approach to social challenges. Some of her arguments may just appear as reasonable matters to Europeans, but are indeed a challenge in the U.S., where public health isn’t open to all, and granting public (or even affordable) education is not so obvious. How difficult is it to call oneself a socialist in a country where there has never been a socialist party and where its references still recall cold-war scenarios? Probably it’s a bit more difficult compared to Italy, but less than ten or twenty years ago.

Populist and far-right movements, which have become very popular in the last few years all over the world, made it very arduous for democratic socialists to find space in the political field. However, sovereignism may be facing soon its first defeats, and the faces of this defeat might look like those of two young women, Ocasio-Cortez and Schlein. Both fighting social inequalities and discrimination against minorities, they also have at heart environmentalism and climate change matters. While Schlein proposes to adopt a climate pact that would allow to eliminate CO2 emissions by 2050 by turning public buildings in energy-efficient ones, reforesting, and offering free public transport for young people, Ocasio-Cortez presents a resolution called “Green New Deal” aimed at stimulating an eco-friendly economic growth.

Another issue that unites them is immigration. Ocasio-Cortez is known for her battle against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy, which she considered discriminatory against immigrants. Schlein, for her part, is certainly pro-European and believes in the importance of collaboration between nations. As a former Member of the European Parliament (from 2014 to 2019, elected at the age of 29 with 53,000 preferences in Italy’s north-eastern constituency), she raised her voice to denounce the inhuman treatment that migrants who try to come to Europe on boats have to endure because of the disagreements between governments, and to state the urgent need to review the Treaty of Dublin. Both have demonstrated to be unshakable on civil rights and immigration matters, and these firm positions, together with the young age and their seemingly unstoppable energy, may be what makes them much more credible than the old establishment to face Trump, Salvini or whoever threaten to set their countries adrift.

Indeed, what made Schlein’s electoral campaign become really popular — besides travelling around the region, talking with the electors, and listening to their needs — was a viral video in which she asked Matteo Salvini why he didn’t attend any of the 22 European Parliament meetings on immigration, held to modify the Dublin Regulation. The former Interior Minister tried to avoid answering by looking at his phone and then babbled something inconclusive before leaving. This video was a hard blow for Salvini, who based much of his public speeches on safety and immigration, claiming that the European Union is leaving Italy alone to carry the “burden” of migrants coming from North Africa.

In terms of immigration, Schlein’s priority is to get rid as soon as possible of the so-called “Safety decree” — a reform enacted by Matteo Salvini’s League in June 2019, making it very hard for NGOs to rescue boats with migrants, as they face fines up to 50,000 euros.

Following the unexpected results at the January 2020 regional elections in Emilia-Romagna, the Italian Ocasio-Cortez is certain that her political view, which brings social and environmental commitment together and communicates in a new, fresh and respectful way, has been key to success. Nanni Moretti would be pleased that someone, in Italy and abroad, finally say something leftist — or anything at all.

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