As the daylight faded in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, one thing was clear: Elly Schlein had passed the test of leading her first rally as PD secretary with flying colors. She was very intent on calling it, not only to counter the government’s budget law, but to show with a vivid example that the new direction of the PD, led by her, has a popular base of party members and activists, not only primary voters.
At 2 p.m., Piazza del Popolo was already almost full of Dem flags and sympathizers: there were also many very young people, which is something new. The final numbers reached around 50,000 (according to the organizers’ estimate): an unqualified success, by no means a given at a time when there are no elections coming up. The secretary had a very long list of speakers before her, touching on the many battles she wants to fight: from health care to schools, the climate, businesses in crisis, the mayors of flood-stricken Romagna, women who are unable to retire and a two-mother couple whose baby girl’s birth certificate was struck off.
They are all “struggles that have to come together,” Schlein said from the stage, “because people are experiencing many problems all at once.” She began her speech with: “We needed to go back into the streets. We are here to say enough is enough with a right-wing government that doesn’t give a damn about those who have less. In a year, they haven’t achieved any positive result.”
She offered radical criticism of the government: from healthcare that “they want to privatize” to the reception of migrants, about whom “they’re spewing hatred”; they “want to lower taxes on the rich and leave the poor without care,” she added. “For us, freedom is redistribution,” she stressed, paraphrasing Gaber. She didn’t spare the prime minister’s leadership: “The model behind it is obvious: a drift towards leadership by referendum. Meloni doesn’t want to govern, she wants to command: an irresponsible choice. We won’t stand for it. This country has already had to deal with one man rule.” She said it in the clearest of terms: “We are proudly anti-fascist.”
Alongside the criticism, she stressed the importance of direct demonstrations: “The streets are our answer. We are here to rebuild the left and a hope: the alternative is here, a new phase begins today.” Meanwhile, Giuseppe Conte arrived backstage with a delegation from the M5S, Nicola Fratoianni and Angelo Bonelli: the yellow-red front of the Conte 2 government managed to set aside its conflicts and divisions, at least for a day. The M5S leader spoke at length with Schlein, and the people gave him a warm welcome: “We are here to confirm the dialogue that we have already started with the PD and to reiterate all our dissent, which is categorical, against the government’s policies, starting with the budget,” he explained.
Schlein called for applause for the guests and stressed that she feels “the responsibility to build an alternative front with a united spirit,” and that “the PD is not self-sufficient.” As Bonaccini had done before her, she stresses that “without the PD, the alternative to this right cannot be built.” There’s no more room for infighting among the opposition: “Our people are fed up. Our goal is to convince those who no longer believe that politics can improve their lives.”
She said it was also a day of “renewed democratic pride.” She didn’t try to hide the mistakes made by the party in the past, from the failure to repeal the Bossi-Fini Law to the choice to weaken the Article 18 protections for workers with the Jobs Act. “This protest is a promise, a project for the future that is meant to grow further, to reach those who didn’t want to come today.”
She dedicated a long stretch of her speech to the war in the Middle East, with a clear call for a “humanitarian ceasefire”: “We can no longer accept the massacre of civilians and the bombing of hospitals, schools and refugee camps,” she said to applause. “We call on Hamas to free the hostages, but we also call for defending Palestinian civilians, guaranteeing humanitarian aid, resuming the path towards ‘two peoples, two states’ – but let us not forget that one of those two states was never established because of the guilty neglect of the international community.”
Schlein reiterated that “the suffering of the Palestinians is not worth any less,” and that international law “has already been violated by Israel with the colonization by settlers in the West Bank.” She added a harsh condemnation of the reappearance of “outbursts of anti-Semitism which hurt us.” She spoke about the figure of Liliana Segre with great warmth: “We want to tell her that she hasn’t lived for nothing.”
Backstage, the leader’s closest loyalists were noticeably smiling: from Igor Taruffi (who oversaw the organization of the rally) to Marta Bonafoni and the group leaders (Boccia, in particular, spoke with Conte at length). There were also bigwigs from the old guard, from Franceschini to Zingaretti and Delrio, and members of the Atlanticist minority such as Guerini, Alfieri, and Bonafè.
The square was full of Dem flags and some calling for peace; other banners weren’t welcome. A group of Sicilian youngsters defied the unspoken rule with a portrait of Che Guevara, while those from Romagna were blasting “Romagna mia” at full volume. The young doctor Stefano Cuccoli, among the first to speak, called on the PD to hurry up: “The battle for public healthcare must be waged now, we won’t be able to hold out forever” – to a round of applause from the crowd.
Another speaker was Ilaria, a student who called for “not just fine words, but concrete action for education” and reminded everyone that “the alternative still needs to be built.” In the finale, Schlein raised the tone: “We need your healthy outrage,” and quoted Pertini: “Freedom without social conquests is fragile.” “We’re not going to stop now,” was her closing line; then she went to sing Bella Ciao together with a group of very young people, some with clenched fists raised.
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