Vote shows Swiss firmly behind army

Voters want to keep the army Keystone Archive

Voters in Switzerland have overwhelmingly turned down a proposal aimed at abolishing the armed forces.

This content was published on December 2, 2001 - 16:56

Four out of five people at the ballot box rejected proposals by a pacifist group to scrap the armed forces and to set up a voluntary peace corps, funded by the government.

Final results show only 22 per cent of voters and none of the country's 26 cantons approved the proposals. Turnout was about 40 per cent.

Parliament, the government and most political parties had come out against the proposals by the group, Switzerland Without An Army.

Supporters of the armed forces said it would be ridiculous for Switzerland to go it alone by abolishing the army and air force.

Twelve years ago the Swiss electorate voted down a similar plan, although it had received 36 per cent of yes votes.

Pacifists disappointed

In an initial reaction, the group, Switzerland without an Army, said it had expected the proposal to fail, but a spokesman for the group said he was disappointed about Sunday's poor results at the ballot box.

In its campaign the group had argued the army was an outdated institution, and that there was no other army in Europe threatening Switzerland.

The defence minister, Samuel Schmid, was satisfied with the result, saying it was a sign of support for the government's army reform plans.

"Doing away with the armed forces would not have made the world more secure, but it would have made Switzerland less safe," Schmid said.

Andreas Ladner, a political analyst at Bern University, blames the pacifist group for failing to mount a convincing campaign in the run-up to the vote: Compared with 1989 it was a very low-profile campaign this time round, he told swissinfo.

"You can not think the unthinkable twice. The issue lost a lot of its appeal for voters", Ladner added. He believes that Sunday's result will be considered as a clear sign of support for the government's policy.

Army reforms

Switzerland's armed forces have been undergoing a series of reforms over the past decade. The sizeable number of yes votes at the ballot box in 1989 for a proposal to scrap the army was seen as a statement of dissatisfaction with the government's defence policy.

During the 1990s, the number of soldiers in the militia 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 the military had an alternative other than a prison sentence.

Further reforms are currently underway aimed at bringing down the number of soldiers and reducing costs.

A unifying force

Switzerland is relatively unusual in Europe, in that it continues to operate a militia style army in which every able Swiss man must serve at regular intervals for a good part of his adult life. Women can join the army on a voluntary basis.

But the Switzerland's armed forces have 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.

The idea of requiring every Swiss man to serve was also regarded as a way to unify a multi-cultural country that has four official languages.

During the Second World War 800,000 men served in the military, guarding Switzerland's borders against potential invaders.

swissinfo with agencies

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