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Swiss to decide army issue -- again

The referendum will decide on the future of the Swiss army Keystone Archive

Voting got underway in Switzerland on Sunday on a proposal aimed at abolishing the army.

This content was published on December 2, 2001 - 10:35

Switzerland is relatively unusual in Europe these days, in that it continues to operate a militia style army in which every Swiss man must serve at regular intervals for a good part of his adult life.

Neighbouring countries such as France have recently announced the abolition of compulsory military service.

But the Swiss army has long been seen as much more than a military force; it is also a significant part of Switzerland's life and culture.

The army in its present form was first founded in the 19th century, just as Switzerland was becoming a constitutional confederation.

Unifying force

The idea of requiring every Swiss man to serve was regarded not just as a good way of building an army quickly - it was also intended to unify a country which had four languages and many different cultures.

Rather cynically, the Swiss army was sometimes referred to by city dwellers as "the place where the country boys learn to brush their teeth."

But, city and country boys alike had to serve, and still have to serve today. In fact, the chance to meet and work with those from other parts of the country is an aspect of the army that many Swiss men still cherish.

End of cold war

The second world war is regarded as the Swiss army's finest hour; during the war years 800,000 men served in the military, many spent months at a time away from their families, guarding Switzerland's borders against potential invaders.

But in 1989 the end of the cold war brought questions about the real purpose of the army. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became clear that the Soviet Union's perceived role as an expansionist aggressor was no longer really correct.

Overnight, the traditional role of the Swiss army, which was to defend Switzerland's borders against invasion - presumably by the Soviet Union - disappeared.

In a referendum in late 1989 calling for the abolition of the Swiss army, one third of those voting said they thought the army should go.

Sizeable minority

It was a sizeable minority; it indicated dissatisfaction with the military status quo, and the Swiss government knew the vote could not be ignored.

During the 1990s, the number of soldiers in the army was reduced, as was the length of time each man was required to serve. In addition a civil service option was introduced, so that those who did not want to serve in a military way had an alternative other than a prison sentence.

But none of this was enough for opponents of the army. Nico Lutz, leader of the Switzerland without an Army campaign, believes neutral states like Switzerland would be better developing new ways of conflict resolution rather than continuing with the army.

"Autonomous self-defence is just not an option for Switzerland," Lutz told swissinfo, "no one really believes that, not the army, and not the government."

Contribution to world peace

Instead of the army, Lutz wants Switzerland to set up a civilian conflict resolution body aimed at brokering peace in regions where there is tension and disagreement.

But keen supporters of the army like Maximilian Reimann, who is a Swiss People's Party member of the Senate, say it would be ridiculous for Switzerland to go it alone by abolishing the army.

"Over 190 nations have armies," Reimann reminded swissinfo, "many of them with very modern and sophisticated weaponry. I really don't see why Switzerland should be the one country on earth not to have an army."

Reimann maintains that the primary function of the Swiss army remains a defensive one, protecting the country from aggressors.

"The other two roles are internal security, with regard to terrorism for example, and international peacekeeping," said Reimann.

Influence of September 11th

Lutz agrees that the argument that the army can be used to defend against terrorism is a persuasive one, particularly in the wake of September 11th.

But he maintains it is an argument that does not stand up to scrutiny.

"There is no army in the world that can defend a country against a handful of religious fanatics, armed with bombs, who turn civilian airliners into bombs," said Lutz.

"Protection against terrorism is certainly a job for the intelligence services, and for the police, but it is not something the army can do."

Vote unlikely to succeed

In fact, both Lutz and Reimann agree that the initiative to abolish the army is unlikely to succeed on Sunday.

What will be interesting however is, just as in 1989, the size of the vote in favour of abolition.

Supporters of the army hope that the latest restructuring of the military, which includes decreasing the numbers of soldiers again, and lowering the age limit for serving to 32 years, will satisfy doubters that the army is really now a modern and flexible force suited to the 21st century.

But, if the vote in favour of abolishing the army is higher than around 25 per cent, the Swiss government may well send the army planners back to the drawing board.

by Imogen Foulkes

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