Austria votes to keep conscription

There were no national elections at the weekend, but there was an interesting referendum in Austria, whose voters decided by a large majority (about 60-40) to retain compulsory military service.

Conscription is clearly on the way out in the developed world; about a dozen EU members have scrapped it in the last ten years (Le Figaro has a handy graphic). Austria’s version, however, is less objectionable than most, partly because the term of service is only six months and draftees have an option of doing nine months civilian service instead.

Still, I’m not one who thinks that fundamental rights should be subject to popular vote – that’s why I have no problem with courts in America striking down laws against same-sex marriage. (It’s also why I’m unimpressed with the majorities in opinion polls here supporting compulsory voting.)

Conscription tends to be a left-right issue; stereotypically, conservative politicians are more likely to think the military is a good thing and their older voters are more happy to send young people to fight and be killed (or at least to learn some discipline). Liberal parties have traditionally been its strongest opponents; the liberal FDP’s entry into the German government in 2009, for example, led to the recent abolition of conscription in Germany.

And that’s how it was in Austria too. The centre-left Social Democrats supported abolition, while the centre-right People’s Party backed the status quo. That made for a slightly tense referendum campaign, since the two are currently in a coalition government together, formed to lock out the extreme right.

For Austria, however, the parties’ positions are a reversal of their usual stand. That in turn brings up the other reason why conscription there is not quite the imposition that it might be elsewhere. Austria, unlike most of its EU partners, is neutral; it has never been a member of NATO, having promised permanent neutrality in 1955 as a condition of the ending of the post-war occupation. The military exists for self-defence, not to be sent off in support of someone else’s adventurous foreign policy.

The Social Democrats are the traditional supporters of neutrality, so in the past they have supported a conscript citizen army to guarantee it (much like neighboring Switzerland). The centre-right, being more sympathetic to the western alliance, used to support a more professional army. Now, with the Cold War over, they have swapped places.

Their clear win in the referendum will give the People’s Party a morale boost for the general election to be held by September this year. But recent polls still show the Social Democrats in the lead, with another unwieldy coalition as the most likely outcome.

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