Opinions - 18.01.2013 - 00:00 

Military service or regular army

On 20 January, Austria will vote on the abolition of conscription and the introduction of a regular army. Peter Platzgummer on electioneering tricks before the ballot in Austria and on parallels in Switzerland.<br/>


18 January 2013. Imagine that there are mayoral elections in Zurich. The vote will be quite boring. The Social Democrats, who have been in power for decades, will win. Irritated by the proportional system Corinne Mauch, the Mayor, aspires to one-party government. In order to win over the votes, at the very last minute, of people who previously voted for the Liberals, she says that tuition fees at ETH Zurich should be radically increased.

Of course it will be pointed out to her at once that ETH is not a Zurich institution, but a federal university. But Simonetta Sommaruga, the Federal Minister of Justice, who only a few weeks before had talked about “university degree courses for all, not just the few” in newspapers, thinks that this is an excellent idea that she would follow up in the Federal Council.

Surprised by the U-turn on the other side, Johann Schneider-Ammann, Liberal Federal Councillor and in charge of education, pleads in favour of the abolition of tuition fees. There is a dissension in the Federal Council. There is no agreement. So the people are asked if they want to radically increase tuition fees like the Social Democrats or abolish them like the Liberals.

Referendum as an electioneering trick
All stuff and nonsense, you say? Well, yes. But in Austria, a similar scenario is the reason why on Sunday, a nationwide referendum will be conducted for the first time ever. Only, this is about Vienna’s Social Democrat Mayor Michael Häupl and the conscription he challenged for electioneering reasons, whilst the Social Democrats have always vehemently defended compulsory military service. Fellow party member and Defence Minister Norbert Darabos, who as late as 2010 confirmed that for him, conscription was “carved in stone”, now suddenly champions its abolition and the introduction of a regular army.

The Chairman of the Austrian People’s Party and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, whose party had a regular army and the accession to NATO that is connected with this in most countries on the party manifesto only a few years ago, is equally curiously now suddenly for the retention of compulsory military service.

Although the Austrian people were able to vote on major constitutional changes in 1978 and 1994 (exploitation of nuclear energy and accession to the EU), a nationwide referendum will be conducted for the first time. In view of the fact that the results of a referendum are normally not binding on the government, the organisational costs of five million euros accruing to the Confederation alone are immense. “Normally” because the federal government has declared that in the current case, they would implement the result of the referendum. Added to this, the citizens eligible to vote have not received any ballot documents, nor have they been sent a message from the government about the issues or the effects that they would have. People must therefore rely exclusively on opinions voiced by the media and the political parties.

Poor preparation for the election
It is not helpful, either, that previous referendums at Lander level were primarily conspicuous for asking considerable leading questions (including grammatical mistakes). In the latest Viennese referendum, for example, one of the questions ran “International studies have revealed that all-day school constitutes the decisive success factor for the compatibility of work and family, and significantly raises the population’s educational level. Are you in favour of all-day school being available all over Vienna?”

In addition, there are problems which are perfectly normal for Swiss people but are avoided in Austrian politics if possible. In referendums, everything boils down to “yes” and “no”. There is no longer any room for a “yes and not” or a “yes, but”. When in Switzerland, however, people try to formulate the texts of initiatives in such a way that the Federal Council still has a certain leeway when it comes to implementation, decisions in Austria seem to be like ultimatums that have to be met with immediate effect. And thus people will decide on Sunday to abolish compulsory military service along with community service. As from now! Or not, as the case may be!

Photo: Photocase / PNetzer

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