Thursday 19 September 2013

Swiss to vote on scrapping social "glue" of military draft

Pacifist group gets enough signatures for referendum on scrapping conscription
The Straits Times, 18 Sep 2013

ZURICH - Switzerland has not fought a war with an external enemy in 200 years, but its military may now face the biggest battle of its existence - from within.

Many Swiss have questioned, over the decades, why Switzerland needs a military, given the lack of direct threats and a longstanding position of neutrality. With 150,000 troops and 6 per cent of the Budget, the Swiss armed forces is the size of those of Austria, Belgium, Norway, Finland and Sweden - combined.

The critics have recently found support from an unexpected quarter - the increasing number of multinational firms which are not happy to see local staff disappear into the conscription militia for around nine months over the course of their 20s.

"Not everyone has time to play war," declares the campaign poster from the pacifist Group for Switzerland without an Army (GSOA).

It has collected the 100,000 signatures needed to force a referendum on Sept 22 that proposes to scrap conscription and replace it with an all-volunteer army.

The armed forces has responded with its own "information offensive".

Conscription has long been considered an essential character-building experience for Swiss males. Those selected to serve as officers not only learn discipline and leadership skills, but also make connections that last a lifetime in Switzerland's rarefied business world.

In early July, executives and human resource managers from foreign companies were invited to watch a military training exercise near Zurich to observe how recruits learn to think strategically, prioritise and work precisely under pressure.

"The Swiss army offers the best practical leadership training in Switzerland," the chief of the Swiss Armed Forces, Lieutenant-General Andre Blattmann, told a news conference in Berne last month.

Mr Josef Ackermann, the former Deutsche Bank chief executive officer, is a fan of the system, once saying in an interview that military service provided better preparation for crises and competition than any business school.

Under Swiss law, all able-bodied men are required to take part in compulsory military service between the ages of 18 and 34.

Ordinary recruits must complete 260 days of service before they are 34, which is broken down into basic training lasting between 18 and 21 weeks and further yearly refresher courses lasting 19 days. An upper-level officer may have to complete up to 600 days of service in total, and may serve up to the age of 50.

The military says conscription is the glue that binds together citizens who have no single national language or culture.

Around two-thirds of the population are German-speaking, roughly 23 per cent French-speaking and 8 per cent Italian-speaking.

So far, the public seems to agree. Sixty-three per cent of those surveyed in a poll published on Sept 11 said they were against abolishing military service, with just 31 per cent in favour.

The GSOA, a pacifist group formed in 1982, has organised referendums on the subject twice before. A poll to scrap the army altogether won 36 per cent approval in 1989, but one to replace the military with a peace corps in December 2001 was defeated by 77 per cent of voters, a result that defenders blamed on the timing, less than three months after the Sept 11 attacks on the United States.

GSOA spokesman Nikolai Prawdzic said the idea of the military training business leaders and workers was an anachronism in the 21st century.

"Decades ago, we had a very top-down hierarchy, where you gave orders and people just obeyed. Now the economy has changed...

"It's important to work together, but also alone and by yourself without someone always giving you orders," he said.

Swiss companies used to look at military service as a way for future managers to make contacts with one another. But the country's business class has been infiltrated by foreigners - just six of the CEOs at Switzerland's top 20 companies hold Swiss nationality - as well as an increasing number of women, who are exempt from the draft.

Young people nowadays also have other options for training such as internships abroad.

"A military service leadership career is not the first selection criterion - those times are over," said Mr Lucas Schellenberg, Swiss country manager at international recruitment firm Stanton Chase.

The military plans its own reforms no matter what the result of the referendum. Under a proposal to be debated by Parliament in the next few months, the number of troops should shrink to around 100,000 from around 800,000 at the end-1980s.

Defence Minister Ueli Maurer said although it was true a direct attack was not likely, Switzerland could still be drawn into a conflict due to its location at the heart of Europe and its important transport links.

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