Support for end of conscription wanes

Support for the abolition of mandatory military service in Austria is in decline, a new poll has shown.Vienna-based agency Karmasin found only 41 per cent of Austrians oppose the current six-month obligatory service, down from 48 per cent in July.The agency, which spoke to around 500 Austrians for political magazine profil, further found that 44 per cent are in favour of the conscription, up by two per cent compared to a poll conducted in July.These findings come days after People’s Party (ÖVP) Interior Minister Maria Fekter and the party’s Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger suggested the army should be able to choose just the 10,000 most-skilled young Austrians to serve the mandatory six-month service.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 pass the series of checks opt for the alternative Zivildienst, a nine-month programme in which they work in hospitals or charities like the Red Cross.Fekter also suggested some of the more than 6,000 men who fail the army medical checks every year could be ordered to work as Zivildiener.Charity organisations have warned they would come into serious financial difficulties if the Zivildienst scheme is ended as part of a reform of the army which could change the troops into a fully professional unit.The debate over whether staff numbers at the Austrian military forces should be reduced was recently fuelled by a statement by Michael Häupl. The Social Democratic (SPÖ) mayor of Vienna suggested days ahead of the 10 October Vienna city parliament ballot that a referendum should be held over a continuation of the conscription.Austria spends around two billion Euros on the army every year, significantly less than most other European countries. The army’s main duties are to protect the country, to be available after natural disasters like avalanches and floods and to participate in international peace-keeping missions.The army has around 16,800 permanent employees of which 1,500 regularly take part in missions headed by the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).Austria is just one of six EU member states which still have a conscription service. The length of the service which Austrian men have to complete is the shortest in the EU, along with Finland and Germany where political leaders are also considering a drastic reform of the current model. The military service programme in Cyprus is the longest at 26 months.Austria’s opposition parties are at odds over whether to axe the conscription. While the Greens and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) are in favour of a reform, the FPÖ supports the current model.FPÖ official Peter Fichtenbauer argued: “We need the mandatory duty since an end of it would also mean an end of the Zivildienst.”All eyes are now on Federal President Heinz Fischer. The former SPÖ science minister is expected to address the topic in his National Day speech tomorrow (Tues). Fischer has vehemently defended conscription, and criticised Häupl for his statements which could lead to a total U-turn of the Social Democrats on the issue.