Austrians vote to keep military service

Almost 60 per cent back status quo, defying trend in Europe of scrapping the draft in favour of a professional military.

    Currently, almost 22,000 men over the age of 18 are drafted into six months of mandatory service in Austria [EPA]
    Currently, almost 22,000 men over the age of 18 are drafted into six months of mandatory service in Austria [EPA]

    Austrians have voted by a large margin to retain military conscription, defying a European trend since the end of the
    Cold War of scrapping the draft.

    About 60 per cent voted on Sunday for a system that currently sees 22,000 men drafted into six months of military service every year over a volunteer-only army, preliminary results showed.

    The result is a blow to the Social Democrats of Chancellor Werner Faymann, which supported scrapping conscription, in the run-up to elections due in October.

    Faymann's coalition partners, the conservative People's Party (OeVP), backed maintaining the status quo, as did the far-right Freedom Party.

    The Greens backed the Social Democrats.

    This was modern Austria's first ever nationwide referendum, and although not binding, the government has pledged to respect the result.

    With the end of the Cold War two decades ago removing the need for large armies, many countries in Europe have done away with the draft, including France in 1996 and Germany in 2011.

    'Fits like a glove'

    In Austria, though, many feared that moving to a professional military would push the country to join NATO, endangering the Alpine nation's cherished neutrality.

    Johanna Mikl-Leitner, interior minister, said on Saturday that the current system "fits Austria like a glove and is the best guarantee for all future challenges".

    Supporters of the status quo insisted that if conscription was scrapped, it would be tough to attract enough volunteers to keep the size of the army at 55,000 troops.

    They also said that creating a professional army would be expensive, just as the eurozone member was trying to cut spending.

    But the defence minister, Norbert Darabos of the Social Democrats, said the draft was outdated in an era of "counter-terrorism, cybercrime ... [and] failed states".

    Meanwhile, the army's chief of staff, General Edmund Entacher, gave warning that a professional army would lead "irreversibly to a drop in quality, numbers and ability".

    Already Austria spends just $2.7bn per year on its military, or 0.6 per cent of gross domestic product, one of the lowest in the EU.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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