Androsch’s Mission Impossible
The SPÖ's arguments for a professional army had little chance for popular support from the start
"It was clear from the beginning that this was a mission impossible," commented Hannes Androsch on ORF Radio, Sunday, 20 January, as the early returns were announced in Austria’s first nationwide non-binding referendum, held earlier that day supporting a continuation of mandatory military service. The result had not come as a surprise to the 74-year-old former SPÖ Finance Minister, who led the Social Democratic Personenkomitee Unser Heer (Comittee for our Army) to abolish conscription in favour of an all-volunteer professional army.
As he spoke just after 17:00, the first exit poll clearly indicated a defeat for the change to a Berufsheer (professional army): In the end, only 1.31 million people (40.3%) of the 3.26 million votes cast supported the SPÖ’s proposal, which would also have established a paid Soziales Jahr, a 12-month paid voluntary national service.
Need for disaster management
Instead, nearly 60% or 1.95 million voters supported the current conscription model with six months of basic training for men between the age of 18 and 35, including the Zivildienst as an alternative civilian service, established in 1975. The Zivildienst is a nine month commitment for which young men earned €300 per month.
Yet, it was not the security issues that most concerned the electorate, according to a study of the Vienna-based private Institute for Social Research and Consulting, SORA. A full 74% of those voting supported conscription citing the need to keep the alternative civil service in place.
Since its introduction, the Zivildienst has become the cost-effective backbone of Austria’s social and health system. Of the some 15,000 men applying for the alternative civil service last year, seven out of ten applicants are currently serving in the emergency services, according to figures of the Alternative Civilian Service Agency (Zivildienstserviceagentur), the national office in charge of allocating Zivildienst-applicants.
At the same time, the Bundesheer with its current mobilisation strength of approximate 55,000 military personnel – including a Defence Ministry figure of 12,000 conscription recruits in 2012 – is primarily charged with the military defence of Austria. Yet, the Austrian Army "has to render assistance in the case of natural catastrophes and disasters of exceptional magnitude" among its core responsibilities, according to its website (www.bundesheer.at). Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, rescue relief operations within Austria have become the most visible activities of the Bundesheer.
When in August 2002 the massive flood hit Austria and devastated wide areas along the Danube, more than 11,000 soldiers – two-thirds of whom were recruits in basic training – helped rescue efforts for the three weeks. With natural disasters looming, especially in mountainous areas, many Austrians apparently saw abolishing conscription as a clear threat to their personal safety.
New security threats
Yet, just two weeks earlier, Androsch had seemed confident of victory against these attitudes deeply routed within the Austria society. Like an Elder Statesman accustomed to winning arguments, he had expected to prevail.
"Since the end of the Cold War, the threats have fundamentally changed," Androsch told reporters at a press conference at Presseclub Concordia on 9 January, citing the example of the technological demands of terrorism threats, which would need specially-trained professionals.
"Without a professional army, there is no European Security Policy," Androsch said, adding wryly that Austria was clearly trailing the rest of Europe. In fact, 21 of the 27 EU countries have professional military forces.
Androsch found a supporter in Anton Pelinka, a respected professor of Political Science and Nationalism Studies at the Central European University in Budapest.
"When it comes to European Security and Defence Policy, Austria acts like an ‘island of the blessed’," Pelinka said, seconding Androsch’s assertion. "We are part of the EU, and consequently part of the Common Security and Defence Policy," while suggesting that "its contribution won’t be one of quantity but rather of quality" – in other words, highly qualified men and women, in roles where Austria has particular expertise.
These arguments in favour of an all-volunteer "professional" army seemed to fall on deaf ears, however – except for Vienna, where 53.9% voted in its favour. Austria’s Defence Minister, Social Democrat Norbert Darabos, took the humiliating outcome with dignity.
"This was no decision about me as a person", he said, countering calls for his resignation. "I will stay in office."
For more on referendums in Austria see "Background: Popular Petitions in Austria" in June 2012 TVR.