AFP – Opinion polls indicate that Austrians will decide Sunday in a referendum to remain one of the very few countries in Europe with compulsory military service.
But with turnout expected to be low, the outcome is uncertain and months of lively debate have divided not only voters but also the coalition government.
With the end of the Cold War two decades ago removing the need for large armies, many countries in Europe have done away with the draft, the latest Germany in 2001.
In Austria though, some fear that moving to a professional military will push the country to join NATO, endangering its cherished neutrality.
At present around 22,000 men over 18 are drafted into six months of military service every year in eight-million-strong European Union member Austria.
Supporters of the status quo say that if conscription goes, it will be tough to attract enough volunteers to keep the size of the army at 55,000 troops.
They also say creating a professional army will be expensive, just as the eurozone member is trying to cut spending.
Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner of the conservative People’s Party (OeVP) equated a change to a “two-billion-euro ($2.7-billion) castle in the sky”.
But the defence minister, Norbert Darabos of the Social Democrats, says that the draft is outdated in an era of “counter-terrorism, cybercrime… (and) failed states”.
“The nature of the threat has changed, that’s why a transformation is necessary,” he says.
The army’s chief of staff, General Edmund Entacher, has warned however that a professional army would lead “irreversibly to a drop in quality, numbers and ability”.
Others argue a reduced force will be less able to respond to natural disasters or participate in international peacekeeping missions abroad as it does now in hotspots including Kosovo and Lebanon.
Another argument in favour of keeping the draft is that at present, 14,000 young men opt out each year and work instead in social services or hospitals.
They thus provide a valuable source of manpower that would be missed if conscription is scrapped, some say.
The referendum has split the government down the middle, with the People’s Party backing military service, supported by the far-right Freedom Party.
The Social Democrats of Chancellor Werner Faymann, the Greens and two smaller parliamentary parties want a professional force.
This will be modern Austria’s first ever nationwide referendum, and although not binding, the government has vowed to respect the result.
Peter Ulram, political expert at Ecoquest, said however that “this is an interesting promise because the government will need a large enough majority to change the constitution. This it doesn’t have”.
The latest opinion polls predict that voters will prefer to maintain conscription by about a 10-point margin, although many were still undecided — or do not care.
“The parties’ tedious squabbling over the army seems to have left a considerable number of Austrians confused and disinterested,” the Spectra polling institute said.
Some 6.3 million Austrians are eligible to vote on Sunday, with preliminary results expected soon after polls close at 5:00 pm (1600 GMT).