ROME, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Italy's opposition centre-left Democratic Party (PD) picked Elly Schlein, a 37-year-old U.S.-Italian national who grew up in Switzerland, to be its new leader and rebuild the group after its election rout last year.
Despite trailing in the polls, Schlein defeated veteran PD stalwart Stefano Bonaccini in a ballot of PD supporters on Sunday by around 54% to 46%, after promising to make her party more radical to challenge the ruling conservative coalition.
Schlein will lead opposition in parliament to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, with two women for the first time in Italian history heading the country's two main parties.
Schlein and Meloni have different stances on an array of issues.
Meloni portrays herself as the defender of traditional families and the Roman Catholic Church teachings on sex and abortion. Schlein is in a relationship with a woman and supports LGBTQ+ rights and gender equality.
Schlein worked on former U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign team in 2008 and 2012 and has been compared in the Italian media to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic politician from New York, for her unexpected rise and activist zeal.
She has said she wants to unite her divided party and work on transitioning to a greener economy, labour reform and wealth distribution.
"The democratic people are alive and are ready to rise up. This a clear mandate for real change," Schlein said on Sunday night. "We will put the battle against every type of inequality and precariousness centre stage."
Although she has promised a new start for the party, many of the PD's grandees have rallied behind her in recent weeks.
Bonaccini is president of the wealthy region of Emilia-Romagna and promoted himself as a sound administrator. Polls suggested he would easily beat Schlein, but in the end he only drew strong backing in the more traditionalist south.
Schlein faces a monumental struggle if she hopes to heal divisions within her party and beat Meloni's conservative bloc in the next national election in 2027.
Although the PD came second in the 2022 ballot, polls show it has lost touch with working-class voters and it failed to present any strong rallying cry in last year's campaign.