Austrians vote to keep compulsory military service

image captionSome 22,000 Austrian men are currently conscripted into the military each year

Austrians have voted overwhelmingly in favour of retaining compulsory military service.

With all votes in the referendum counted, except postal ballots, 59.8% voted to keep the draft with 40.2% against, the interior ministry said.

The issue has divided politicians in the coalition government.

Supporters of change said a professional army would be more effective - critics said it would put Austria's cherished neutrality at risk.

Austrian men must serve six months in the army or nine months in civilian service when they reach 18.

Increasingly few European countries demand compulsory military service. France abandoned conscription in 1996, and Germany in 2011.

Calls for an end to conscription are growing in Austria's neighbour, Switzerland, which is also neutral.

'Best guarantee'

Currently, some 22,000 men are drafted into military service each year.

Those who do not want to serve must spend nine months working in community jobs, such as ambulance drivers and in senior citizens' homes.

The centre-left Social Democrats say the current make-up of the armed forces does not work for the 21st Century, arguing that a professional army is needed to work more effectively with other European armies.

Defence Minister Norbert Darabos called the current force outdated in an era of "counter-terrorism, cybercrime... [and] failed states".

But the conservative People's Party argued against change. Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said the current system "fits Austria like a glove and is the best guarantee for all future challenges".

Opponents feared the move will not only prove more costly, at a time when Austria is trying to cut spending, but would also push the country towards membership of Nato and the abandonment of neutrality they have observed since 1955.

Army Chief of Staff Gen Edmund Entacher also warned that changes to the current set-up would lead "irreversibly to a drop in quality, numbers and ability".

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