Only the fittest for scaled-down army, says ÖVP

The People’s Party (ÖVP) has suggested the Austrian army should be able to pick only the best young Austrians to serve the mandatory six-month service.ÖVP Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger and the party’s Interior Minister Maria Fekter said today (Fri) they wanted to give the army the right to call up only the 10,000 most-skilled of Austria’s 18-year-olds every year.Around 46,000 Austrian men have to undergo two-day medical checks every year to find out whether they are fit enough for the conscription. More than 14,000 of the 25,800 who passed the series of checks opted to serve as Zivildiener in the so-called Zivildienst scheme, an alternative programme in which the young men work in hospitals, retirement homes or for the Red Cross.Fekter said the situation that more than 6,400 young men were found not healthy enough to serve in the army for half a year was “very unpleasant”. The interior minister and Spindelegger suggested that some of them could be ordered to work as Zivildiener to take off strains from nurses and carers at clinics and other institutions.The leading ÖVP representatives also revealed being in favour of reducing the number of young men in conscription to around 10,000 a year to make the army more effective and operable.These announcements come shortly after Vienna’s Social Democratic (SPÖ) Mayor Michael Häupl suggested a referendum should be held over the future of the current conscription model.The statement was widely regarded as a populist U-turn since the SPÖ has vehemently defended the obligatory military service system for decades. Analysts also accused Häupl of having fallen to his knees in front of leading Kronen Zeitung newspaper in a bid to receive backing in the 10 October Vienna city parliament vote.Häupl’s remarks were made barely a week ahead of the ballot in which the SPÖ Vienna was robbed of its majority in seats for the second time only after the end of World War Two.Critics pointed out that army issues were a federal matter Häupl has no influence on. He is, however, considered to be the most powerful Austrian Social Democrat. Asked why he opted for a 180-degree turnaround on the topic, the mayor said: “The debate is on now, so I decided to make clear what my opinion is on the matter.”The SPÖ official admitted that having made the statement shortly ahead of the crucial election was “not a total coincidence”.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.SPÖ Defence Minister Norbert Darabos, previously one of the most outspoken supporters of the conscription, welcomed Häupl’s idea of a referendum – followed by infamously opportunist SPÖ Chancellor Werner Faymann.Darabos previously made clear the obligatory military service model would not be changed in any way as long as he was in charge. The minister – who opted for Zivildienst himself after finishing school – argued the current system was of immense importance to ensure permanently available forces for cases of natural disasters such as avalanches and floods.Highest army commander and Federal President Heinz Fischer – a former SPÖ MP – made clear he would not change his opinion on the issue. Clearly referring to Häupl’s suggestions, the conscription supporter said: “I won’t sacrifice my beliefs on the table of populism.”Economic experts are at odds over whether a smaller army with a higher budget would come cheaper for taxpayers than the current system. Several studies on the issue have been presented in the past few years. Some of them suggested the federal government would be well advised to set up a fully professional army, while others showed that the established model was the best option for Austria.Public opinion agency Karmasin found eight in 10 Austrians consider natural disaster protection as the army’s top majority, while only 15 per cent named national defence responsibilities. Around 48 per cent of interviewed Austrians told the agency they would be in favour of getting rid of conscription.Peter Pilz of the Green Party made clear earlier this year he was ready to prepare a referendum on the issue. The MP labelled the current system as a “money sink”.The Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) has also spoken out in support of a reform of the army.The SPÖ-ÖVP coalition spends around 2.1 billion Euros a year – only 0.79 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) – on the army.ÖVP Finance Minister Josef Pröll recently announced that the defence ministry must 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.