Army critics take aim at political taboo

The conscript army, a tenet of Switzerland's political system Keystone

Voters are to be asked to decide on a proposal calling for a fundamental reform of the country’s conscript system for the armed forces as well as its civilian service.

This content was published on January 8, 2012

As the necessary signatures for a nationwide ballot were handed in this week, looks at similar attempts closely linked to the Switzerland without an Army group.

Founded nearly 30 years ago, the pacifist group came to prominence when it launched its first initiative with the simple and radical aim of scrapping the army in a country whose modern history has been marked by the principle of armed neutrality.

Every able-bodied man is liable for military service, according to an article in the Swiss constitution.

The introduction of a civilian service in 1996 offered a limited alternative although young men are not really given a free choice. Military service for women in Switzerland is voluntary.

The first initiative of the Switzerland without an Army group made the front pages back in 1989.

The result showed a 64 per cent rejection by voters. But this was still seen as a major political upset considering Switzerland’s image after the Second World War as a country which had successfully defended its independence thanks to its army and its neutral status.

Over the past three decades the pacifist group has launched five other initiatives and challenged two parliamentary decisions to referendums, notably proposals to ban arms exports and stop the acquisition of new fighter aircraft.

None of the political efforts were an outright success at the ballot box.

Breaking taboos

But despite their electoral failure, Jo Lang, a leading member of the Switzerland without an Army group, is upbeat.

“Recent Swiss history is inconceivable without us,” he says. Lang argues that criticising the army and the military mindset of society the group has broken a political taboo.

The group pushed for a reduction in size of the armed forces, helped cut military spending and contributed towards a more humane style of military service, including the introduction of a civilian service.

Lang also claims that the pacifist group not only acted as main organiser of the Swiss peace movement in the first decade of the 21st century. It has also collected a total of about 500,000 signatures for several initiatives over the past five years – playing a leading role in the system of direct democracy.

Jonas Zürcher, political secretary of the group, adds that even a rejection at the ballot box is not necessarily a political defeat. He says that the policy of repeating its demands will pay off for the group.

Both representatives believe the group has become more pragmatic in its approach over the years, tackling issues such as a ban on arms exports and the storing of army guns in private households.

Stuck in rut

The Giardino group fighting for the maintenance of the militia system argues the pacifists of Switzerland without an Army have for the past 30 years been committed to the illusion of a demilitarised society.

“Their calls for the scrapping of conscription are perfectly in line with neo-marxist ideas,” says Hans Suter, president of the Giardino group.

He argues the pacifists and their “un-Swiss” and “anti-army” activities have not changed in the least over the past three decades, being “stuck in a rut of neo-marxism and class struggle”.

But Suter acknowledges that the initiatives of the pacifists have contributed to a broad public discussion about the army, the militia principle and security.

The conservative organisation, Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland, is more conciliatory in style but equally firm in its opposition to the pacifists.

“Their vision of a peaceful world has remained unrealistic and their policy is contradictory because it leads to an army of professionals and membership in Nato, undermining the militia principle and neutrality – two tenets of Switzerland’s political system,” says Werner Gartenmann, director of the conservative pressure group.

Spot on

As for the latest initiative, handed in with the requisite signatures to the Federal Chancellery on Thursday, Lang believes it is “spot on” as it tackles a key political issue.

“Mass armies can no longer be financed, there is increasing pressure from business against their staff spending much time in the militia army and most European countries have abolished conscription. Young people in general are less and less willing to be ordered around.”

Lang describes the anti-conscript initiative as the second most important in the history of his group but not on par with the 1989 vote which coincided with the end of the Cold War period.

Zürcher adds that the question of fairness and equality of the draft no longer applies, as parliament has decided to halve the number of troops.

“Even today one third of Swiss men do not serve in the army and only one in two of the others complete their duty. With the new reform even fewer men will actually be drafted. The army simply has no use for them.”

A date still has to be set for a nationwide ballot on the issue.

The next vote on military matters is a possible challenge at the ballot box of the proposed purchase of 22 Gripen fighter aircraft likely in autumn 2013 amid plans to halve troop numbers from currently 200,000 to 100,000 but boost the annual budget to SFr5 billion ($5.3 billion).

“It will be a vote for or against the army,” insists Defence Minister Ueli Maurer.

Switzerland without an Army

Founded in 1982 the pacifist pressure group claims up to 20,000 supporters.

The group has launched a total of eight initiatives and referendums in its 30-year history; it has also contributed to five other initiatives by centre-left groups.

At the beginning of January the pacifist group handed in more than 107,000 signatures to force a nationwide vote on a proposal to ban conscription.

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Conscript system

The Swiss army is based on a conscript system and the militia principle. Only a small core of army members are full-time professionals.

Military service lasts at least 262 days for a private individual aged between 20 and 34. Civilian service, which is 50% longer, was introduced in 1996.

Two initiatives – in 1989 and 2001 – to abolish the army were rejected by voters, winning 35.6% and 22% support.

Last year parliament voted down a proposal to suspend the conscript system.

A government advisory committee this year called for a free choice between service in the army and civilian service.

Most countries in Europe have abolished conscription for military duty, except for Norway, Greece and Moldova. Others maintain a compulsory service, but offer an alternative civilian service.

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