A left-wing activist and leader, a young feminist, a woman who loves another woman: this pedigree alone is enough to understand – and make it clear to everyone – that Elly Schlein’s victory in the PD primaries is a mini-revolution for a party that has traditionally been male-dominated, neoliberal on the economic level, moderate on the political level, and exceptionally timid in the defense of civil rights.
But it is also a shock to the system of the whole of Italian politics, because it is not difficult to predict that the first moves of the newly appointed secretary of the main opposition force will be to break the patterns to which the party had accustomed us under Enrico Letta: on the competition with the Five Stars, on the democratic-institutional focus, on making stands against the decisions and proposals of the right-wingers on migrants, labor, the environment, Europe.
Years ago, as the party was submerged under the Renzian tide, with the resurgence of debate and mobilization among minorities in our pages, we wrote an article entitled C’è vita a sinistra (“There is life on the left”), with the hope of seeing the emergence of a new, broad, popular, open, libertarian, radical, socially and politically advanced area of politics.
Unfortunately, that idea – which envisioned all the smaller groups to the left of the PD coming together – never came to fruition. Each would rather preserve its own organization.
Today, however, Schlein’s unsettling victory is reviving hope among the people of the left, scattered among the PD, the M5S, Italian Left, the Greens and the other small formations that have tried, in vain, to carve out a place for themselves over the past decade.
Elly Schlein could be the leader of a broad progressive front, able to restart the stagnant, rusty political “machines,” to bring new stimulation to dulled political passions, to restore confidence to an army of malcontents, to push younger people to participate, reactivating a populace that is being hit hard by the electoral victory of the worst right-wingers of post-war Italy.
But to do this – and so much more – Schlein will have to do nothing less than overthrow the hierarchy of the PD, its crystallized internal dynamics, up to and including its non-confrontational vision of the country. And she will also have to break with the history of the left marked by constant splits, ruptures, divisions. She will need to do this in order to avoid perpetuating the pernicious tradition of the new secretary of today becoming the former secretary of tomorrow.
We will soon see whether she will succeed. Because the obstacles and controversies that accompanied the primaries are being reinterpreted among a general astonishment at the unexpected outcome and, no less, by the disappointment of many that they don’t get a chance to point at her failure.
Those who want to downplay the significance of the high turnout argue that the long lines to vote were partly due to a large number of Conte’s supporters showing up to vote against their enemy Bonaccini. It’s possible, since nobody was excluded from voting, but this would be self-defeating behavior from the M5S supporters, given that the future PD secretary will take away support from the Five Stars, since these two political forces will be casting their nets among the same electorate.
On Sunday evening, during the live television broadcast by il manifesto (an experiment that was well-received and successful, despite endless technical difficulties, and which we intend to repeat soon), one of our interlocutors, Domenico De Masi, explained cogently that the PD and M5S have so far received the bulk of their votes from two different worlds: one “bourgeois” and one more “proletarian.”
Perhaps this will no longer be the case from now on. Quite the opposite: the Democratic Party will only benefit from the new situation if it rebuilds a socialist and environmentalist identity, burying the decades of neoliberal contagion.
It will benefit by focusing on representing and mobilizing the people in the streets in the fight for the rights of the least-safeguarded, least-protected, precarious, disenfranchised Italians, that army of millions that no one represents, not even at the union level. And, of course, the environmentalist galaxy, which is as rich and present in society as it is near-absent in the institutions.
Is there still a risk of a split in the party? Possible, but unlikely. And, if anything, it would be along a different fault line: towards the right.
Renzi and Calenda don’t seem to be worried about Schlein’s victory. The two seem convinced that a piece of their former party will break away. On the other hand, it is true that, after Bonaccini’s defeat, one of the active currents within the party remains strongly linked to its Renzian past. To avoid a split, the leader elect will have to show herself capable of bringing and keeping together people who, in addition to having different orientations (which is certainly not a novelty, thinking back all the way to the coexistence of very distant cultural orientations in the PCI), can hardly stand each other.
Those who really should be worrying are the governing right-wingers of all stripes. Indeed, a premier who prefers to be addressed with the masculine form of “prime minister” will not make a good impression face-to-face with a woman who defends the importance of gender identity and the LGBT world (think of La Russa, for instance, who said he’d be “unhappy” if one of his children was gay: Schlein’s victory won’t sit well with him and a large part of the right).
But it is particularly on the political level that this reactionary and fascistoid government will have to worry. Because the new leadership of the PD will try to field a strong opposition, without concessions.
In essence, it will be a matter of restoring truth and credibility to the word “change,” a word which, like so many good intentions, has often paved the road to disillusionment – but which, if it really manages to bring positive developments, will become convincing and engaging again.
Getting scattered, divided, disillusioned forces moving once again will not be a walk in the park. As we also saw at the last regional elections in Lombardy and Lazio, there is an enormous disconnect between the people and politics.
The primary vote, with all its limitations and paradoxes (the most glaring one: the fact that the final result overturned the choice of the 150,000 registered voters), undoubtedly represents a strong shot in the arm for progressives, for Democrats, for the left. However, the task of leading a disunited and scattered people back on the right track is a very complicated one.
And it will take more than just one woman in charge to accomplish it.