“We need real change on several levels” – Interview with Fayad Mulla (Wandel)

Actually, nothing fundamental has changed since the founding of the Austrian Party Wandel in September 2012, chairman Fayad Mulla says in an interview with Alerta. The small party has caught the attention of several Austrian media in the last months. Time to talk about left-wing local politics in Vienna and how the political left is doing in Austria.

Fayad Mulla (Wandel)
Fayad Mulla (Wandel)

Mr. Mulla, Vienna is regularly voted one of the most liveable cities in the world. Do you agree with this?

Mulla: In principle yes, if the indicators used are correct. However, one assumes here an average value, which means that the average citizen is doing better than the average. Just because it’s better than elsewhere doesn’t necessarily mean anything good per se, and on the other hand, there are many people in Vienna who definitely don’t live in the most liveable city.

These average calculations are one of the biggest crimes of our world. Let’s take a look at the USA, for example: We are talking about the richest nation, but 40 million people there have no health insurance. Excuse me, you cannot speak of the richest and most successful nation. The average is meaningless: If my neighbor is a millionaire and I don’t have a penny, then we are half-millionaires together.

On October 11, local elections are held in Vienna. Your party takes part in the district “Neubau”. How is the current election campaign going during the pandemic? What security precautions have you taken?

Mulla: In our office we have set up some corona rules. There are contact tracing sheets which have to be filled in by people who do not work in the office regularly. We have disinfectant dispensers and wear masks. During the election campaign we can do a lot outside because of the nice, warm weather. So there is not much difference to normal times, except that you just wear masks when you are in closer contact with people. However, a large part of the election campaign takes place on the Internet.

What do you think leftist and progressive local politics looks like in a metropolis like Vienna?

Mulla: It is important for us to put together a coherent program. This means that politics at the local level is aimed at the same goal of a progressive, free and democratic society as politics at the national level. For example, we are calling for a Citizens’ Council both in the Vienna district and throughout Austria. This would enable citizens to directly approve or reject important decisions as a corrective measure.

The climate crisis also shows that we need a different energy supply. For example, we want to ensure that the roofs of buildings are covered with solar energy systems that belong to the citizens, so that they can get their electricity at cost price. We want to drive forward an energy turnaround without taking over the old power and ownership structures.

As far as housing policy is concerned, Vienna is a bit better off than other European cities, because we have the heritage of “red Vienna” with municipal construction. Nevertheless, there are 60,000 vacant apartments, although this figure is only an estimate, as the city itself does not record any figures. Here we propose the “Amsterdam Model”. If an apartment is vacant for half a year and the landlord is obviously not interested in renting it out, the city will provide a tenant. For the mediation, a fee is charged, which may be quite hefty.

The current pandemic has also shown that we need a basic income. Meanwhile we are rich and progressive enough that we can take the next step in liberating people. Especially artists and cultural workers would benefit from this. So they can really create their art freely without having to worry about subsidies and the restrictions that come with them. But we also say quite clearly that one must be able to live on the basic income. Therefore we demand 1 500 Euro net per month.

The program of Wandel speaks of a “superblock”. What exactly does this mean?

Mulla: You can find a “superblock” in Barcelona, for example. There, a few blocks of houses are grouped together and all streets in between are closed to traffic – with the exception of delivery and emergency vehicles, of course. Since there are no parking spaces, the resulting public space can be made available to the neighbors. In the city of the 21st century we no longer need individual transport! However, we are expanding the concept to include areas that seem central to us, such as democracy and environmental protection. And only when these points have been fulfilled and all people can live well, it will be a “superblock”. Otherwise it is just a normal apartment block.

In summer, the “Gürtel Pool” in Vienna made the headlines. It was a pop-up pool in the middle of a seven-lane crossing of the Vienna Gürtel. Do you consider such measures to be worth looking into in the future or is it pure political actionism of red-green?

Mulla: The measure itself was political actionism, although at the same time it was looked at how this would affect traffic. To carry out this in the summer months is however relatively pointless, because people are on vacation and thus less traffic is on the roads. By the way, there used to be a children’s swimming pool at the same place. I think you have to be more courageous overall. The 150,000 euros invested in this PR project should have been invested more sustainably. The pool is now torn down, the money is gone and the traffic measurement results are useless. That is one of the differences between us and the Greens or the Social Democrats (SPÖ), for example, who are completely discouraged and have subordinated themselves to the propaganda of the right and liberals.

But Wandel also made the headlines in the summer months: You accused HC Strache of not being able to run for the office of Vienna Mayor because he did not live in Vienna. Your ad was followed with great interest by the Austrian media. How did the action come about and did you expect the reactions?

Mulla: I must correct at this point: HC Strache claims to be a candidate for the mayor’s chair of Vienna, but of course he has absolutely no chance. Such a worn-out cellar Nazi is not elected by 50 percent of the population! He is running for his parliamentary immunity and not for a mayor! (laughs)

The debate about Strache’s place of residence had been going on for a while and someone had tweeted about it. So I thought I would have to look into it in detail: What does the election law say, where does Strache really live, where did he register his company, etc.? It was clear relatively quickly that he lives in this villa in Klosterneuburg, which was subsidized by his old party and not in Vienna with his mother. It is a fake registration so that he can run for office in Vienna.

We then sued him, shot a video and thought that a few people would be interested. We were a bit surprised or rather pleased that there was so much attention at the end and for weeks, because it also increased our popularity. But it is shocking, because the media are horny for such stories. If we write programs or make cool actions, they are not interested. That’s unfortunately how the media logic works and that’s one of our most central problems of democracy. The bourgeois media is in the hands of bourgeois and very rich people.

But it was a success, because the laws of democracy apply to everyone, even to a street that was up there for a long time. We also gave the basement Nazi a few shitty weeks. Simply super cool!

What is the current status?

Mulla: The district electoral authority has decided on it after investigations were accomplished. Only party representatives sit in this authority and they can vote on whether another party should run or not. In this case the SPÖ, the Greens and the ÖVP1Austrian conservative people’s party voted for Strache to run. This is of course a completely opportunistic decision, because the SPÖ and the Greens hope that Strache will win a few votes from the FPÖ2Austrian right-extremist party and that is why they let such a guy run again. What can one say about this? Of course someone can contest the election, but we can’t, because we don’t compete at state level.

The FPÖ had announced that they might contest the election if Strache would run.

Mulla: Norbert Hofer said that in the summer talk. In an interview later he said: “Yes, we will see.” He assumes that we will do it anyway. So the next cowardly Nazi immediately turned tail and on the other hand he didn’t check that we can’t contest the election at all. But the right never understands laws anyway.

Wandel in Wien
Wandel in Vienna

What is the general state of left-wing politics in Austria?

Mulla: In principle non-existent, if you look at it on the institutional level. To speak of left politics in parliament is already relatively difficult. After all, the Reds were in power in Austria for a long time before, either as junior partners or as the governing party. Before the right-wing populist Kurz came to power, the SPÖ had provided the chancellor three times in a row and made absolutely no left-wing politics or politics for the common good, for the people or for the environment. If such a policy had really been made, right-wing populists like Kurz would have no chance. No one would vote for people like him or Trump if the population realized that there was an alternative that would really improve their lives.

As a result of the climate debate, many have now voted for the Greens – also in the hope that it is a left-wing party. Of course, one day after the election they immediately broke their election promise, namely that they would not enter into a coalition with the right-wing populist Kurz. After a few weeks of coalition negotiations, the new government was in place. They really betrayed their entire program, even in areas for which they had previously fought vehemently, such as human rights and democracy. In the meantime, even the last ones can write off that anything thta comes from the Greens is left-wing politics.

There are, of course, things that happen outside of parliament. In our current bourgeois democracy, one has the greatest freedom of action in parliament and this, in combination with the bourgeois media, also receives the greatest media attention. As long as the positions in the media, but also in parliament and other institutions, such as trade unions, are occupied by people who are supposedly on the right side, but who have very well come to terms with their fat salaries in parties and social organizations and do not do what they are actually supposed to do with their mandate, left-wing politics will have a very hard time.

At the same time, the Ibiza Committee of Inquiry is currently meeting, which is also concerned with the question of how the former FPÖ leadership wanted to barter away Austria. Then there is the scandal about the ÖVP’s excessive campaign costs. One scandal follows the next, when it comes to the former government. Surely the political left should have an easy job?

Mulla: The problem is rather: how can I reach the people? The media have not the slightest interest in people on the left, progressive side and their content. You just have to put on a tin foil hat, say you are a vegan cook and now you want to re-introduce the German Reich and get even more attention. In Vienna, a crazy woman tore up a rainbow flag at a Covidiot demonstration and shouts something about “child molesters”. All the media report about it on their front pages and give interviews. As a left-wing party, you can’t act so badly as to somehow get such coverage and then talk about your content. After all, the crazy Corona demonstrators not only get the attention, but can also place their issues. Once the leftists get this attention because they have done something bad, they only talk about their big crime, but not about ideals or ideas.

But we also know how the media work and how their structures function. It is not always the journalistic ethos that has the final say, but the owners of the media. In Austria we find ourselves in an extreme situation. The Kronen Zeitung, as a privately owned medium, has a market penetration that no other country can match. It is about as powerful as a people’s party, like a third party after ÖVP and SPÖ. It is a democratically non-legitimate body, which is a huge power factor, and of course has no interest in spreading alternative ideas. So despite the good starting position, it is difficult to reach people with left-wing or alternative ideas or to communicate that change exists at all.

In the National Council elections we ran nationwide, but most of the media don’t even mention this because we are a small party. The media then say: “These are the parties running for election” and only those parties and top candidates are listed who are already in parliament. Only the parliamentary parties are invited to the discussions on ORF. The public television commentary says: “These are the six parties running for election”. But there are eight parties. We often meet people on the streets who tell us: “I have never heard that you are running.”

Is it therefore wiser to implement leftist projects and policies at the local level?

Mulla: I would not say wiser. We must not leave out any “battlefield”. We simply cannot afford that. People also have different interests. While some are more interested in local politics, others want to act more on an international, global level. So we have to get people where they have their interests and competences.

After the fall of the turquoise-blue coalition, Sebastian Kurz now rules with the Greens. What is your conclusion of the green government work so far?

Mulla: It seems as though the Greens always have the points of their programme up for debate when it comes to negotiations with the right-wing populists. During the election campaign, people naturally look at what the top candidates have to say. Green party leader Werner Kogler said in an interview that there is zero percent probability of entering a coalition with the ÖVP. He even underlined by forming a zero with his hands. The day after the election, this announcement was no longer valid.

It was negotiated with the ÖVP and a pact was made. Apart from a few climate measures that do not do justice to the extent of climate change in any way, little is noticeable of their programme. In a few years’ time, for example, there will be a “1-2-3 Ticket”, which has a fancy name and with which you can travel through Austria for a few euros less. Our world is just flaring up and in a few years we will introduce a “1-2-3 Ticket” in Austria.

The Greens have abandoned their entire human rights programme, including of course the issues of flight and migration, and left it entirely to the ÖVP. These are areas we would not even negotiate, especially things that have been written down in international treaties. Moreover, the Greens have even allowed that if the ÖVP is not happy with the voting behaviour of the Greens on the “Flight & Migration” part, it can seek a majority outside the coalition with the FPÖ.

The whole coalition programme is so horrendous for someone who once believed in left-green politics. Now we have had the government for three quarters of a year and the balance sheet is already disillusioning. A 40 euro minimum price for flights will not stop anyone from flying less. That is called green policy. If you represent the people in parliament, you have to deliver, otherwise people will be disappointed. It is not for nothing that the Greens have already been thrown out of Parliament.

It grew together what did not belong together – turquoise-green federal government in Austria
Dragan Tatic/BKA

A former green politician keeps trying to be the conscience of Austria – the Federal President Alexander van der Bellen. How satisfied are you with him?

Mulla: On paper, the Austrian federal president is extremely powerful, but traditionally he is not very politically involved. I do not see Mr. van der Bellen as a truly progressive politician – in fact, the opposite. The previous government, which was of course partly Nazi, was sworn in unconditionally by the Federal President. Mr. van der Bellen has placed all three Austrian secret services in the hands of the FPÖ. No objection and nobody can force him swear these people in. His pre-predecessor Dr. Thomas Klestil (ÖVP) even dared to refuse a fascist like Hilmar Kabas a ministerial post in the first black-blue government.

Then comes Sascha van der Bellen, an alleged leftist, and swears in a much more right-wing government than under black-blue back then. You’d think that it was somehow nice to have a green Federal President now. Of course things could be worse. Norbert Hofer (FPÖ) would have been worse. But that is not an argument. If I hit you in the face once and say: “Please be happy about it, because I could have hit you twice”, then that is a shitty argument. (laughs)

What future do you see for Wandel at federal level?

Mulla: We are actually never really concerned about our party. Rather, we want these progressive ideas in economic, social and equal rights policy to be taken to all levels and also to parliament. How this happens is not important to us in concrete terms. As long as there is nothing else, we will gladly continue to do so as Wandel. After all, we have now built up a relatively strong brand. For us, however, Parliament is only one of the many levels that are needed to make this change happen at all. We should not take this stage away from us, because it is a huge political and media stage that also has many resources.

At the same time, we should not overestimate it. We do not need to believe that the foundations of bourgeois-capitalist democracy can be undermined if we are elected in with five, ten or twenty percent. For this change to happen, real change is needed and it must take place simultaneously at several levels, such as the street, in the workplace, in the trade unions and in the parliaments.