A road sign promoting the conscription of the Austrian Army is pictured Jan. 20 in Allenstein, near Vienna. (DIETER NAGL / AFP)
VIENNA — Austrians have decided by a large margin to retain military conscription, even though the end of the Cold War two decades ago prompted most European countries to ditch the draft.
In modern Austria’s first-ever referendum on Jan. 20, 59.8 percent opted to stick to the status quo, following a lively debate that divided not only voters but also the coalition government.
Just 40.2 percent — fewer than expected — supported Chancellor Werner Faymann and Defense Minister Norbert Darabos’s argument that 8-million-strong Austria would be better served by a professional army. Instead, they agreed with the Social Democrat Faymann’s coalition partners, the conservative People’s Party (OeVP), and with the head of the army, that relying only on volunteers would be an expensive mistake.
Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner of the OeVP had said the current system “fits Austria like a glove and is the best guarantee for all future challenges.”
With the demise of the Soviet Union 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. Darabos declared that the draft was outdated in an era of “counter-terrorism, cybercrime... (and) failed states.”
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.
The conservatives argued also that the army would find it tough finding recruits to replace the 22,000 men who are conscripted every year for six months. A volunteer-only force would make the military less able to help in disaster relief and in international peacekeeping missions, they argued.
The army chief of staff, Gen. Edmund Entacher, had warned that a professional army would lead “irreversibly to a drop in quality, numbers and ability”.
Manpower shortages would also hit social services and hospitals, the OeVP said, since these rely on 14,000 men opting out of conscription every year to perform services instead in the civilian world.
Faymann on Jan. 20 put a brave face on a result that was clearly a setback nine months before general elections, saying he had “full confidence” in Darabos after speculation the minister might quit.
“This was not a referendum today for or against a minister or a government,” Faymann told reporters.
Darabos himself said he was “disappointed, to be honest, that the second-best system won.”
He said, however, that he would stay in the job and embark on the “difficult but achievable” task of reforming the military.
In this, Darabos will have his work cut out, with the government hoping to cut spending on the army — which at 0.6 percent of gross domestic product is already below the EU average.