Beaten and divided, Italy’s center-left seeks new leader

President of the Emilia-Romagna region, Stefano Bonaccini attends the signing on Feb 7, 2023 at the French embassy in Rome, a memorandum of agreement for the organization of the Grand Depart Firenze – Emila-Romagna Tour de France 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

ROME – Italy's center-left Democratic Party (PD) will chose a new leader this weekend who it hopes can pull the group out of a tail spin and provide a credible challenge to the nationalist prime minister, Giorgia Meloni.

PD supporters will have to pick between two starkly different candidates who offer opposing views on how to revive the party after a string of crushing election defeats.

The frontrunner Stefano Bonaccini is president of the wealthy, northern region of Emilia-Romagna. He promotes himself as a sound administrator and proven vote winner, who would seek cross-party alliances to defeat the ruling right-wing coalition.

The Democratic Party has never won a national election outright since it was founded in 2007 but has proved adept at forging coalitions and has provided three of Italy's last six prime ministers

He is up against Elly Schlein, a rising star of Italian politics who wants the PD to shift to the left and unite behind core values, such as gender equality, LGBTQ rights, climate change and labour reform.

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"I am not sure either of these two candidates can lead the PD to victory at the next election, but Bonaccini would certainly have a broader appeal," said Sofia Ventura, a political science professor at Bologna University.

"The right is rooting for Schlein. They think she would make the PD unelectable."

The PD has never won a national election outright since it was founded in 2007 but has proved adept at forging coalitions and has provided three of Italy's last six prime ministers.

The party itself is riven with divisions, meaning it is now seeking its ninth leader in 16 years, and its once strong local roots are withering, leaving it in charge of just four of Italy's 20 regions.

Lost identity

Its last leader, Enrico Letta, quit after the PD came a distant second in the 2022 parliamentary election, paying a heavy price for failing to forge an alliance with the likes of the 5-Star Movement and other opponents to Meloni's bloc.

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While the 5-Star Movement has successfully portrayed itself as the defender of the poor and the south, the PD's identity has become blurred. It wins support from metropolitan elites but has lost touch with working class voters.

Bonaccini's detractors say the 56-year-old regional leader represents the past, not the future. "He is as a boring as a funeral director," celebrity photographer Oliviero Toscani said this week, urging the PD to rally behind Schlein.

If she gets the nod, the 37-year Schlein would become the first openly LGBTQ person to lead a major party in Italy.

Pro-European and a feminist, she has Jewish roots and saw off two well-established party veterans in primaries to win herself a place in Sunday's run-off, which will be open to any registered resident in Italy. The winner is expected to be announced on Sunday evening.

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Makeshift voting booths are being set up across the country and PD officials hope at least a million people take part. More than 3.5 million voted at the first PD leadership race in 2007, but numbers have declined ever since and the threat of bad weather is likely to dampen turnout still further this weekend.

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