Austria held a referendum yesterday on whether to end the conscription and move on a professional army. Although the result were non-binding, the government had pledged to honor them.
The evolution of the Austrian army is thus delayed, as the majority of voters (60%) rejected the proposal aiming at the end of the conscription system. Indeed, the government had planned a huge reform of the Army, reducing it from a 35,000-troop force (17,000 of whom are conscripts) to a force of 8,500 career soldiers and 9,300 part-time militia members (currently a 30,000-troop force).
Supporters of the reform argue that nowadays threats call for a more mobile and effective army, thus requiring a fully professional force that can more easily operate with its European partners and be more easily deployed. This argument worries critics of the reform, who claim such a logic might divert Austria from its neutral status and fear that the drastic reduction of troops might not result in more efficiency. Indeed, as the New York Times reports:
The strongest support for the conscription system came from outside of the capital, Vienna, in the country’s rural states, where memories of soldiers shoveling snow in villages buried by an avalanche or heaving sandbags to protect towns from rising rivers appeared to have influenced voters.
Behind these issues is also an important social question. Military service in Austria is mandatory. However, Conscientious objectors can join the civilian service for a nine-month period (versus six months for conscripts), which make them a valuable asset for Austrian social services:
Opponents of a move to a professional force had also argued that scrapping conscription would rob the country’s social services agencies of thousands of conscientious objectors who carry out a variety of low-paying jobs that would otherwise be difficult to fill, including work done by ambulance drivers and caregivers for the elderly.