SPÖ makes shock U-turn on conscription

Leading Social Democrats (SPÖ) have spoken out in favour of a referendum about conscription in what is regarded as a sensational U-turn on the issue.SPÖ Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl suggested yesterday (Mon) people should decide on whether young Austrians should still have to serve in the army. Around 25,000 men aged 18 or 19 receive a call-up for a six-month obligatory service after finishing school or a traineeship every year.Public debate about the issue has intensified over the months as several European Union (EU) states scrapped their conscription services. Just seven of the EU’s 27 members still have an obligatory army duty model.Federal SPÖ Defence Minister Norbert Darabos – who has so far ruled out any kind of change to the law during his reign – promised “full support” for Häupl’s idea today. Darabos previously claimed the army would struggle to fulfill its duty to help Austrians affected by natural disasters like floods if it was robbed of conscripts.Federal SPÖ Chancellor Werner Faymann and Josef Cap, the party’s whip in the federal parliament, also expressed their backing of a referendum.Häupl said: “The voice of the people must be heard in such an important issue.Faymann responded by saying: “Direct democracy isn’t just something for Sunday speeches. That’s why I support the suggestion.”Darabos said he wanted a “debate free of any taboos” about whether to axe the mandatory military duty or not. All possible future options will be examined, he explained, referring to the different systems countries like Sweden, Switzerland and Germany have.Cap called Häupl’s point of view “appropriate and contemporary”.Columnists and political analysts now accuse Häupl of having decided to “fall on his knees” in front of editors of the Kronen Zeitung days before city parliament elections are due in the capital.The market-leading newspaper, which backs the SPÖ, has campaigned in favour of an end to conscription for many months by presenting various surveys suggesting a majority of people wanted to get rid of it. The newspaper – which has a daily readership of around three millions – also claimed a smaller, fully professional army would be less expensive than keeping the obligatory six-month service ruling.The SPÖ bagged 49.1 per cent in the 2005 city parliament election – enough to claim a majority in seats. Latest polls see the party between 43 and 47 per cent in Sunday’s vote, while the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) could improve from second to third place with a forecast of 20 to 24 per cent (2005: 14.8 per cent).Häupl admitted it was no total coincidence he suggested a referendum less than a week before the city parliament ballot. The mayor – regarded as having more influence in the SPÖ than anyone else – also stressed: “The discussion is being held now, so I expressed my opinion now.”He claimed the circumstances for Austria – a neutral and independent state by constitution since 1955 – have “dramatically changed”. The mayor also said young men should not “waste six months of their lives” any longer when they could use it to study or work.Greens MP Peter Pilz made clear earlier this year he was ready to prepare a referendum on the issue if the government did not change its mind on the current system he labelled as a “money sink”.Christian Ebner, general secretary of the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), said in a reaction to Häupl’s announcements his party will press on with getting rid of conscription in a meeting of the federal parliament. The BZÖ has spoken out in favour of an end to the ruling for some time. Ebner said the SPÖ could then prove how serious it was with axing the six-month mandatory duty law.All eyes are now on the reaction of Federal President and supreme commander of the army Heinz Fischer. The former SPÖ science minister is one of the most outspoken supporters of conscription.Fischer claimed the mandatory service scheme has been “tried and tested” over the past decades. He also said the current model was the best he could think of.The president warned Austria may struggle helping Austrians affected by natural disasters without the conscripts. Fischer also expressed doubts about the future of the “Zivildienst” service which young men can choose instead of serving at the army. The alternative scheme has these men working at hospitals, retirement homes, disabled people communities and other institutions. Darabos opted for “Zivildienst” himself.The Austrian government spends around 2.1 billion Euros a year on the country’s army. The figure makes just 0.79 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Most other EU countries spend significantly more on their armies than the Austrian coalition government of SPÖ and People’s Party (ÖVP).ÖVP Finance Minister Josef Pröll recently ordered the defence minister to spend 80.3 million Euros less year on year in 2011, with another 129.5 million Euro reduction in the coming year as well as a 151.7 million Euro cut in 2013. These spending cuts are part of the government’s attempts to reduce the budget deficit and state debt by 2013 to avoid sanctions by EU watchdogs.