War-free for two centuries, Swiss still vote to keep big army

Rival campaign posters stand side by side ahead of Switzerland's vote Sunday that defeated a pacifist group's referendum proposing to end Swiss Army conscription.
Rival campaign posters stand side by side ahead of Switzerland’s vote Sunday that defeated a pacifist group’s referendum proposing to end Swiss Army conscription.
(Fabrice Coffrini / AFP/Getty Images)

Better known for its handy pocketknives and Vatican guards than for fighting wars, the Swiss Army of conscripts is still necessary to protect the Alpine federation and its nearly 200-year-old policy of neutrality, voters have decided.

In the third referendum on conscription in 25 years, Swiss voters defeated a pacifist group’s proposal to abolish the draft with a resounding 73% no vote on Sunday.

The abolitionists from the Switzerland Without an Army group had argued that the 4.7 billion Swiss francs ($5.1 billion) spent to keep 155,000 troops at the ready was a waste of taxpayer funds in a country that was last involved in war more than two centuries ago following the French invasion under Napoleon Bonaparte.


But the Swiss government had urged voters to retain conscription, pointing out that other Western European countries that have renounced the draft in recent years are experiencing difficulty recruiting enough volunteers.

“Abolishing military service would break the genuine link uniting the people and the army,” Defense Minister Ueli Maurer warned ahead of the vote, referring to the unifying force of compulsory military service in a country divided by language and widely varying incomes.

Maurer praised the voters’ decision at a news conference late Sunday, calling it “a yes to the army and to more security,” the news site reported.

The Swiss vote bucks a trend in post-Cold War Europe, where major Western countries, including France, Germany and Italy, have moved to an all-volunteer force. Only neighboring Austria still has a draft, following a similar unsuccessful referendum in January.

Though Swiss voters have consistently expressed strong backing for an armed citizen militia that is among the largest per capita in Europe, the size of the army has been drawn down significantly in the last 20 years. The federation of 8 million people that works in four official languages -- French, German, Italian and Romansch -- had 800,000 troops when the Cold War ended two decades ago.

But even its considerably reduced size, from 10% of the population to about 2%, remains huge by regional standards. Germany, with 10 times Switzerland’s population, maintains an army of 183,000, or about 0.2% of its citizens.

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Twitter: @cjwilliamslat