Austria is to hold a referendum on whether to abolish its long tradition of compulsory military service for young men. But there’s little public or political consensus on the issue.
Austria's Defence Minister, Norbert Darabos, wants a professional army made up of well paid volunteers rather than poorly paid conscripts.
"The questions should be put: Professional army - yes or no. Retaining general conscription - yes or no. In my opinion that's sufficient," said Darabos.
But many disagree with the minister including most of the army's top brass. In fact, the chief of staff is in open conflict with the minister on the issue. Author and defence expert Conrad Seidl says the Bundesheer, as the army is called, is mostly happy with the status quo.
"The Bundesheer has a long tradition," says Seidl. "For over 50 years now they have had a conscript system, and a large part of the Austrian military is composed of reserves or, as we call them, militias."
But the impact of the referendum will be felt beyond the military. In recent years more and more young people have chosen civic service as an alternative to military service. Charities, especially the ambulance services, have come to rely on those who choose this option. They don't want civic service thrown out with the military service bath water. Noemi Müller, the chairperson of Austrian Catholic Youth, opposes military service but says feelings are mixed about ending compulsory civic service as well.
"I think many of them would be grateful because they can study right after A levels and they won't lose a year," she says. "But some will also be sad because civic service is also a chance to do something for the Austrian people and give something back."
Austria has also come to rely on its army of conscripts in times of natural disaster. They're called in to rescue people from avalanches and flooded homes.
Only the beginning
A fierce political battle is raging over the issue, and the opposing camps are divided between left and right. The Social Democrats and Greens prefer the professional army option; the conservatives are flying the flag for conscription. Though there are many on both sides who are not in step with their leaders.
The one point most people agree on, is that if conscription is to be stood down in the upcoming referendum, some form of social work should continue. What people can't agree on is whether it should be compulsory or voluntary. The battle over conscription is just beginning. It promises to be the most divisive in Austria's recent political history.
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