Swiss voters will head to the ballot box Sunday to decide whether to abolish their conscript army, as much a part of the Alpine nation’s image as direct democracy, chocolate and cheese.
Countries across Europe have ditched the draft in the two decades since the end of the Cold War, and pro-change campaigners say Switzerland should head the same way.
But pollsters forecast the anti-conscription referendum — spearheaded by pacifists, backed by left-wing parties, and opposed by the right, parliament and the government — will fall flat.
A survey last week gave it only 31 percent support.
A vote on abolishing the army outright in 1989 mustered a surprise 36 percent support, but just 21 percent backed a similar move in 2001.
The debate has exposed sharp divisions between adversaries who see the mass army as a relic and those who cherish it as a hub of national identity.
“It’s going to take time to shift the mindset. It’s anchored pretty deep in the national psyche,” said Tobias Schnebli, spokesman of the anti-military group GSoA.
Male Swiss citizens aged between 18 and 32 start with a seven-week boot camp and take six 19-day refresher exercises over ensuing years. Since 1992, non-military service has been available for conscientious objectors.
Armed neutrality has been the Swiss watchword for two centuries, with part-time soldiers keeping their arms at home.
Switzerland has not been attacked since the early 1800s, though the two world wars sparked mass mobilisation.
“We’re neutral, and not exactly in danger, so do we really need this system?” said serviceman Cedric, 23, who asked that his name be withheld.
Switzerland is ringed by friendly nations, but draft supporters say the status quo is essential in a world of morphing threats, since post-conscription countries struggle to fill the gap.
“There wouldn’t be enough volunteers, those who came forward wouldn’t be ideal, while a professional army would just attract Rambos and mercenaries,” said army commander General Andre Blattman, 57.
— Cementing the nation? —
The pro-draft camp says a citizen army is more than a military force.
“Abolishing military service would break the genuine link uniting the people and the army,” insisted Defence Minister Ueli Maurer, 62.”
The army has long been seen as the cement of a highly-federal country with three main language groups — German, French and Italian.
“I’ve served with German-speakers and Italian-speakers. It brings us together,” said Nicolas Bauer, 22, a psychology student in French-speaking Geneva.
Many regard the military as a leveller.
“Everyone’s mixed together. That’s important. I’ve served with apprentice butchers and cheesemakers, and people with law or business degrees,” Bauer told AFP.
Service has long been seen as oiling the wheels of the economy, with its contacts and skills appreciated by business.
Swiss firms must free male staff for military duty. The state covers 80 percent of their salary, and most companies opt to pay the remaining 20 percent.
“The militia system means the army can count on people whose professional qualifications make our country one of the world’s top-performing economies,” said Maurer.
Critics dismiss such arguments.
Schnebli, 55, said fellow Italian-speakers stuck together in his army days. In any case, he said, today’s world offers multiple alternative ways to work, study and connect across language divides.
“It’s a bit of a legend. And what about women? They’re half the population. Don’t they count? And around 40 percent of men drafted are declared unfit for service. Many are city dwellers and middle class, they’re better at playing the system, so the idea of a broad mix doesn’t reflect reality,” said Schnebli.
Men who do not serve pay a special tax of four percent of their salary instead.
Analysts also say the value of “militia” service — a term the Swiss apply to part-time politicians or volunteer fire-fighters as well — is losing ground to individualism.
Meanwhile, the once-colossal army has shrunk for budgetary and strategic reasons.
A 1961 reform cut it from 800,000 to 625,000. It was slashed to 400,000 in 1995, and 200,000 a decade later.
The current count is 155,000, in a population of eight million, and by 2016 another reform will take it to 100,000 — still needlessly big, critics says.
In comparison, there are almost 183,000 active troops in neighbouring Germany, with 10 times the population.