Ellie Schlein in Italy on the threat of the new Italian right

IIf the elections are to be trusted, Italy will soon be the first-ever female prime minister. But those on the left like Ellie Schlein won’t celebrate. The socialist and rising political star, known as Italy’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, began her career in 2014 representing Italy in the European Parliament before returning home to help defeat the far-right in Emilia-Romagna, a wealthy northern region. The province in which she has served as vice president since 2020. These days, Schlein is running in the Italian elections on September 25 as an independent candidate for parliament on the PDI Italy list, and has spent the past several weeks campaigning across the country. Trying to thwart the far right again.

But this task was not easy. Compared to Italy’s right-wing parties – which have already agreed on a common platform they plan to enact if they get enough votes to form a government – Italy’s left-wing parties are divided, fragmented and lagging in the polls. Even if they could win a higher percentage of votes from the right, they would not necessarily be able to form a governing coalition. Although Schlein is ready to discuss what a possible government led by Giorgia Meloni — leader of the Brothers of Italy, a far-right party with neo-fascist roots — might mean for the country, she insists the left still has everything to play for. “The fight is still open,” she says, “and we’re fighting until the very last day.”

Read more: In Italy, a new face of the far right is emerging in Europe

TIME met with Schlein in the run-up to the final week of the campaign to discuss what is at stake for Italy in this election, why the left is so fractured, and what Meloni’s Italy’s leadership will mean for the country, Europe, and the West.

You have an unusual background compared to most other Italian politicians: you hold both Italian and American citizenships, but you were born and raised in Switzerland. So, how did you get involved in Italian politics?

In my family, politics has always been there. My parents, from different backgrounds, are still very involved. They never directly practice politics, but we discussed it at home. I started getting more and more interested in politics when I was first at school, and then at university in Bologna. I was in the student movements and went to the United States to campaign as a volunteer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. It was the start of social media. And it was also a lesson for me because I saw very different people working together towards a coherent vision of the country’s future. This method of popular campaigning is something I have tried to implement here also in Italy.

I’ve quarreled with the far right before. How was the experience?

Two and a half years ago, when I returned from the European Parliament, I and other people were asked to build a new movement with a left, green and feminist perspective for elections in Emilia-Romagna. It was a regional election, but it had a national impact. [The far-right leader Matteo] Salvini was very powerful in the country. He got over 30% in the polls and was very competitive. We were in danger of a right-wing victory in Emilia Romagna, historically a stronghold –Rocaforte, as we say in Italian – center left. So I decided to run and we managed to win a very difficult election.

The Italian left appears to be more divided today. why is that?

Our opponents are very adept at meeting each other, even if they do not share the same ideas and vision. You can see contrasts every day between Georgia Meloni, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi. But when it comes to elections, they remain consistent. And usually, the left can’t stick together.

I’ve always said we need to do two things: Bigger parties like the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement should try to be more coherent and clear on key issues – jobs, immigration and climate – to attract more voters, especially the younger generation. At the same time, we have a lot of small parties on the left. Sometimes I joke in Italian that on the left we have more parties than voters sometimes. We have to overcome the contradictions of the major parties as well as the disintegration of the smaller parties.

I would have loved a broader coalition. But still, if you look at the polls, the Democratic Party and its allies are the only strong alternative to the Meloni, Berlusconi and Salvini coalition. So we are running to win these elections and we have the numbers to form a government.

What attracts voters in Meloni? Was the fact that her party was the only opposition against the recent unity government that fueled her rise?

She has been in opposition for 10 years, so she was never blamed for the hardships she faced during these times. [Meloni, however, served as the youth minister in Berlusconi’s government from 2008 to 2011.] She has taken serious stances on the pandemic because she has always been against the COVID-19 green corridor and all restrictions. Shutting down itself wasn’t an easy choice for any of us. But at some point, we have to listen to the science and to people who are more competent than us politicians, and make tough choices for the greater good.

Right-wingers are very good at naming problems, but they have never proposed a solution that redistributes power, wealth, and knowledge. They stop there. Voters can sometimes relate to them because they talk about the concrete problems people face. But the solutions proposed by the right go in the opposite direction. One concrete example: They are fighting for a flat income tax. But if you lower taxes on the rich in a country with a whole host of problems, that means less money and public services for the poor.

What would a Meloni-led government mean for Italy?

If you look at the international allies of her party, you will actually see the kind of policies they have in their countries. Viktor Urban said races should not be mixed. He also passed laws against the LGBTI community and abolished the right to seek asylum in his country. Another ally of Georgia Meloni is Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and they are undermining the independence of the country’s judges and engaging in already difficult discussions with the European Union over the rule of law. The European Parliament voted on a resolution condemning attempts to violate the rule of law in Hungary, and you know who voted against this resolution? The Northern League, led by Salvini, and the Brotherhood of Italy, led by Meloni. How could it be clearer than that?

How important is it for Meloni to soon become Italy’s first female leader?

Not all leaders help other women. There is a difference between female leadership and female leadership. A prime minister who does not stand up for the rights of all women – starting with the right to choose – does no good to other women. [Meloni is against abortion, though she insists she would not ban it. Regions under her party’s control have seen abortion rights curtailed.]

What is the impact of the far-right government in Rome on the European Union?

Salvini is one of the few Italian leaders to question the sanctions imposed on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Salvini does not constantly attack the invasion of Ukraine, but rather the sanctions imposed by the invasion. It should not become Italy Grimaldeloa way to undermine the cohesion of the European Union in this struggle for democracy.

If the Meloni government is passed, what lessons do you think the Italian left should learn from this election?

We will have to work hard every day to restore people’s trust. In the past ten years, my generation and my younger generation have had a difficult relationship with politics. Many people think politicians are all the same; Many people believe that politics is no longer a way to improve their lives. This is true. Trust is not something that is easy to rebuild within 20 days of an election campaign. We are trying and trying with the most advanced program that the Italian Democratic Party has ever offered.

I think we can restore credibility. And we can do that by opening the political class to the younger generation, to women, because we are severely underrepresented. But today we are the best and most powerful alternative to the far right, which looks to the past rather than the future.

One last question: You are often likened to US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What do you think of the comparison?

I follow it, and I’m clearly flattered by the comparison. But I think we operate in two very different political contexts and have two completely different backgrounds. What is true is that there are similarities in the battles we face and in our approach – what we call the intersection approach. what does that mean? We need to unite our fights for social justice, gender equality against patriarchy, and climate justice. We face the same challenges we do as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — but we also face Rashida Tlaib, the other amazing congresswomen she works with, and Bernie Sanders.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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write to Yasmine Sarhan at [email protected]

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