VIENNA — Austrians voted by a large margin Sunday to retain military conscription, bucking a European trend since the end of the Cold War of scrapping the draft.
Some 60 percent preferred a system that sees 22,000 men drafted into six months of military service every year over a volunteer-only army, preliminary referendum results showed.
The result is a blow to the Social Democrats of Chancellor Werner Faymann, which supported scrapping conscription, ahead of 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.
Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner of the OeVP said the current system “fits Austria like a glove and is the best guarantee for all future challenges.”
This was modern Austria’s first nationwide referendum, and although not binding, the government has vowed to respect the result.
With the Soviet Union’s demise 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.
In Austria though, some had feared that moving to a professional military would push the country to join NATO, endangering the Alpine nation’s cherished neutrality.
Supporters of the draft say it would be tough to attract enough volunteers to keep the size of a voluntary army at 55,000 troops.
They also argue that creating a professional army would be expensive at a time that the eurozone member is trying to cut spending.
The army chief of staff, General Edmund Entacher, had warned that a professional army would lead “irreversibly to a drop in quality, numbers and ability”.
But Defence Minister Norbert Darabos declared the draft outdated in an era of “counter-terrorism, cybercrime... (and) failed states”.
Austria spends two billion euros ($2.7 billion) per year on its military, or 0.6 percent of gross domestic product — one of the lowest ratios in the EU.
Generals have already had to cope with swingeing cuts, forcing them to sell or scrap two-thirds of the army’s tanks, among other things.
If the draft were scrapped, some have argued, an inevitably reduced force would be less able to help in disaster relief or international peacekeeping missions as it does now in hotspots like Kosovo and Lebanon.
But those who back scrapping the draft believe that having only well-trained and motivated career soldiers, no raw recruits, would actually improve performance in these areas.
At present, some 14,000 young men opt out of the draft each year and work instead for nine months helping disabled people and the elderly, or in hospitals.
They provide a valuable source of manpower that would have been missed if conscription were scrapped, the OeVP had argued.