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 their drafts.
In modern Austria’s first-ever referendum Sunday, 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’ argument that 8-million-strong Austria would be better served by a professional army.
Instead, they agreed with Social Democrat Faymann’s coalition partners, the conservative People’s Party, and with the head of the army, that relying only on volunteers would be an expensive mistake.
With the demise of the Soviet Union two decades ago removing the need for large armies, many countries in Europe have done away with their drafts, including France in 1996 and Germany in 2011. Darabos declared that the draft was outdated in an era of “counterterrorism, cybercrime . . . (and) failed states.”
In Austria, though, some feared that moving to a professional military would push the country to join NATO, endangering the nation’s cherished neutrality.
The conservatives also argued it would be tough for the army to find 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 had 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 People’s Party said, since these rely on 14,000 men opting out of conscription every year to perform services instead in the civilian world.
Faymann on Sunday 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,” he said.