By COLLEEN BARRY, Associated Press

MODENA, Italy (AP) — As far-right leader Giorgia Meloni’s push to become Italy’s first female prime minister gains momentum, the country’s fractured left is offering voters a contrasting feminist style of politics.

Elly Schlein, a 37-year-old Italian-American national who grew up in Switzerland, cut her political organizing chops during two campaigns for former US President Barack Obama. She is often compared to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because of her social justice platform.

Schlein, a former member of the European Parliament, came to national attention in Italy 2½ years ago when she played a key role in preventing the right from taking power in her traditionally left-wing region of Emilia-Romagna .

She clashed at the time with right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini over his repeated failure to vote on immigration policy while in the European Parliament, even though he gave fiery speeches at home against migrants.

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Schlein is now taking on Meloni, bringing a thoughtful, political voice to the Italian left’s national campaign in a bid to prevent what opinion polls suggest is an inevitable victory for a right-wing coalition.

Meloni’s 45-year-old Brothers of Italy party still topped the polls ahead of the September 25 parliamentary vote, putting her in a position to be chosen as prime minister.

“Not all female leadership helps women,” Schlein told several hundred people at a weekend campaign rally at the Festa dell’Unita in Modena.

“There’s no point in having a female prime minister if all the rights of other women are overthrown, including control of their own bodies,” she said, referring to growing concerns that Meloni would act to limit abortion.

As Vice President of Emilia-Romagna in charge of Equality and Environment Programs since 2020, Schlein has championed the rights of women, youth, migrants and the LGBTQ community.

She criticizes the current Italian political class for creating “paternalistic” policies that do not consult the people they affect. In 2015, she left the center-left Democratic Party (PD) over differences in the direction it was taking under Matteo Renzi, then party leader and prime minister.

In this election, Schlein remained outside the party structure, standing as an independent candidate on the PD’s Democratic and Progressive Italy list.

Writing to Schlein to excite undecided voters and mobilize the youth vote is part of Democratic Party Chairman Enrico Letta’s long-term efforts to create a progressive coalition that could heal divisions on the Italian left.

But that effort failed miserably to create a left-wing electoral coalition for that vote. This gave a clear advantage to the right-wing coalition made up of Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy, Salvini’s right-wing League and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia.

“It’s no secret that I was hoping for a broader coalition,” Schlein told The Associated Press in Modena, speaking in his preferred language, Italian. “It didn’t happen because of some tactical decisions, which I think were a mistake.”

Letta has ruled out an electoral alliance with a former ally, the 5-Star Populist Movement, after helping topple Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s national unity government in July against the wishes of the left.

And centrist parties refused to join Letta after he aligned himself with smaller parties more to the left.

During the election campaign, proposals from the left — including a minimum wage, limiting short-term jobs, and moving toward renewable energy sources — are often drowned out by right-wing rhetoric and tactics.

Meloni shocked naysayers by posting a video on social media purporting to show a woman being raped in the street by an asylum seeker. Salvini, meanwhile, has made repeated visits to overcrowded migrant centres, highlighting the problem even as arrivals are well below previous peaks.

“Clearly we have to try to reverse this right-wing rhetoric,” Schlein said. “It’s a rhetoric that finds an enemy one day, against which to hurl all the social anger, but which in reality yields no solutions to people’s problems. It’s a strategy as old as it is cynical.”

“You can disguise things and try to fool people,” she added. “It’s up to us to unmask this deception for a better future.”

In his appearances, Schlein talks about politics in quick speeches. She is not shy about responding to fears, particularly among Italy’s allies, and especially in Europe, that Meloni and his party’s neo-fascist roots pose a threat to democracy.

“Giorgia Meloni’s role models are (former US President Donald) Trump, who masterminded the attack on the Capitol…and (Hungarian President Viktor) Orban, who said just a month and a half ago that races should not be mixed and who substantially nullified the right of asylum in his country and who creates laws against the LGBTQ community,” Schlein told the AP.

Schlein made a popular figure at Modena’s Fest dell’Unita, a traditional left-wing rally that combines the atmosphere of a funfair with politics. She was greeted with applause as she entered a catering tent and was stopped by admirers as she walked halfway.

Her political message, unsurprisingly, was hailed in the heartland of Emilia-Romagna, which she adopted as her home region after graduating from law school in Bologna.

Martina Lolli, a 24-year-old hairstylist from Modena, found strength in Schlein’s feminist message. She said: “As a woman, I have hope that female solidarity, which I believe in, can change something, as Elly said.”

“I’m very worried if the other woman wins,” Lolli added, referring to Meloni. “If she wins, I won’t feel represented. At least I don’t want to be represented by a political party that denies my rights.

Alessandro Corradi, a lifelong leftist voter, walked away from the rally holding a signed copy of Schlein’s just-released book, impressed with his ideas.

“She has proposals, unlike politicians who only listen to polls and try to win votes, saying mundane and timid things that are boring and repetitive,” said Corradi, a bank employee who said the grumpy state of the left ‘makes me want to cry.’

Schlein’s politics have been untested on the national stage, and like Ocasio-Cortez, his focus on redistributing resources to the most vulnerable is widely seen as left of the mainstream. But the fact that Letta not only exploited her, but highlighted her role in her own appearances, suggests that greater things lie ahead.

“I think she has a lot of potential, because she has this mixture of grassroots support and international relations, and she’s actually not ideological,” said Natalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs, a think tank.

Schlein thinks the left can still win in this month’s elections. It focuses on the 40% of voters who, according to polls, are undecided or considering abstaining.

“I’ve never campaigned in an election where I didn’t have opinion polls to spill,” Schlein said, citing both Italy’s 2020 regional elections and his pro bono work on Obama campaigns. . “I hope that also happens in this short, difficult campaign.”

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