Austria: Referendum on conscription in January 2013


On 20 January 2013, the citizens of Austria will be able to decide on the future of conscription in the country in a referendum. At present, it seems impossible to predict the outcome of the referendum - opinion polls differ, and are generally close, with 51:49 results not uncommon - in favour or against conscription.

Strictly speaking this is not a referendum, but a consultation of the Austrian populace. Article 49b of the Austrian constitution states: "(1) A consultation of the people on a matter of fundamental and overall national importance for whose settlement the legislature is competent must take place if the National Council votes it by reason of a motion from its members or from the Federal Government. (...)" However, the Austrian government declared that it will respect the outcome of the consultation.

While Austria presently maintains conscription, already now more than 50% of Austria's Armed Forces are professional soldiers on soldiers on a fixed-term contract. According to the "Weissbuch 2010", out of a total strength of the Armed Forces of 27,358 only 11,197 were conscripts, which are about 40%. Conscripts usually serve for six months, and during their service they mainly receive training, but cannot be used in operations abroad. However, after their six months of conscript service, they can volunteer for a six month service with the Austrian Armed Forces abroad.

In addition to the permanent Armed Forces, Austria makes heavy use of reservists and "militia" - part-time soldiers -, especially in some of its less combat heavy operations abroad, such as its contingent to KFOR and the EU mission EUFOR ALTHEA in Bosnia and Hercegovina. The Austrian Armed Forces participate in UN missions in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and on the Golan Heights (UNDOF), in the NATO-led mission in Kosovo (KFOR), and the European Union mission in Bosnia & Hercegovina (EUFOR ALTHEA). In addition, Austria participates in the European Union battle groups with at present 350 soldiers. Austria's contribution to the war in Afghanistan - the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) - is mainly symbolic: 3 soldiers are participating.

Some parts of the Armed Forces clearly favour a move to a professional military. In a publication of the Ministry of Defence on security policy, Kees Homan and Theo van den Doel of the Netherlands Institute for International Relations Clingendael in Den Haag write: "The new complex tasks of the armed forces require a professional army. Due to the evolution of technology, future military operations will be even more sophisticated than today. It is inefficient to use conscripts for these tasks. One cannot rule out that in the near future the European Army Corps will be based on career soldiers only. If that is the case, those countries whose armed forces are heavily dependent on conscripts are limited in their contribution, which might run against the national interests."

The consultation on conscription has become necessary as the two governing parties - the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) - have diametrically opposed views on conscription. While the ÖVP wants to maintain conscription, the SPÖ is favour of abolishing it. Minister of Defence Norbert Darabos is a member of the SPÖ and promotes a transition to a volunteer based professional military. He favour professional Armed Forces with about 8,500 professional soldiers, 7,000 soldiers on 3-4 year contracts, and about 9,300 "militia".

An end to conscription would also be a challenge for Austria's social welfare system, which relies heavily on conscientious objectors performing substitute service. More than 1,200 welfare organisation deploy more than 13,000 conscientious objectors in substitute service every year - the Austrian Red Cross alone deploys 4,000. It is is no surprise that the Austrian Red Cross is therefore very concerned about the possible impact the end of conscription would have on the availability of cheap labour, and Red Cross president Gerald Schöpfer does not think that even a well-financed voluntary social year would be a viable alternative.
For WRI's Austrian affiliate, the ARGE WDV, the discussion goes into a wrong direction. The ARGE WDV demands an honest discussion about "Who needs a military and for what?", and wants to abolish the Austrian Armed Forces in its entirety.

Sources: Die Presse: Heeres-Befragung: Regierung einigt sich auf Fragestellung, 7 September 2012; Antrag der Bundesregierung auf Durchführung einer Volksbefragung gemäß Art. 49b B-VG, September 2012; Federal Constitutional Law from 1929, in the version of 1 April 2010; Austria proposes deployment of EU Battlegroups in Bosnia, 27 September 2012; ISAF: ISAF: About ISAF: Austria, accessed 2 October 2012; Bundesministerium für Landesverteidigung und Sport: Weissbuch 2010, 2011; Bundesministerium für Landesverteidigung und Sport: Preparing the Austrian Forces for the 21st Century , in: Beiträge zur Sicherheitspolitik, May 2007; Kurier: Berufsheer: Darabos' Zahlenspiele im Visier, 30 August 2012; Der Standard: Zivildienst: Von 300 zu 13.000 Zuweisungen,
27 September 2012; ORF Steiermark: Wehrpflicht: Rotes Kreuz warnt vor Aus, 24 September 2009; ARGE WDV: Aktuelle Themen - Wehrpflicht, accessed 2 October 2012

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