Swiss voters reject move to end conscription army

BERN, Switzerland (AP) — For the third time in almost a quarter-century, neutral Switzerland has overwhelmingly voted to maintain its conscription army.

Voters in all 26 cantons (states) rejected the military service referendum Sunday — by a margin of 73 percent opposed to 27 percent in favor — that pacifists and left-wing parties had put forward to do away with a conscription army, Swiss public broadcaster SRF reported.

“It is a yes to the army and to more security,” Swiss President Ueli Maurer, who also is the defense minister, told a news conference on Sunday.

But nearly two-thirds of voters in the country’s Italian-speaking southern canton Ticino approved a right-wing populist measure to ban wearing full-face veils in public areas, in a move that mirrors bans in Belgium and France, but does not specifically mention Muslims.

It is the first such ban to be approved among Switzerland’s 26 cantons, and drew immediate condemnation from Switzerland’s Central Islamic Council and Amnesty International, which called it a victory for fear over reason and respect.

About 400,000 Muslims live in Switzerland — about 5 percent of the 8 million population — many of them from the Balkans and North Africa. In 2009, the country drew widespread criticism when voters banned construction of new minarets on mosques, in a referendum opposed by the government but championed by the nationalist, anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party.

Of the veil ban in Ticino, Maurer said it “underlines a certain degree of disquiet in the population.”

Swiss voters turned down a more radical plan to scrap the army altogether in 1989 that was put forward by the Group for Switzerland without an Army (GSoA). Despite its defeat, the proposal gained support from more than a third of voters, causing an uproar.

A second nationwide vote on a similar initiative brought by the group in 2001 drew 22 percent approval.

Swiss voters have a close attachment to the military. In a nation of 8 million, farmers, watchmakers and bankers alike undergo basic training for 18 to 21 weeks, then keep their uniforms and weapons at home to be ready for tours of duty and rapid mobilization.

The Swiss have prided themselves on their army. The Swiss constitution requires every able-bodied male citizen to serve in it from the age of 18, but some exceptions are allowed for those who do civilian service. Women can serve voluntarily.

But left-wing and humanitarian critics have said too much is spent on the military, and the end of the Cold War eliminated the need for large-scale forces with fighter planes, tanks and artillery.

Even though Switzerland kept a stance of armed neutrality during World War I and World War II, many Swiss believe their military — including mandatory service in it — remains a strong deterrent that has kept the small Alpine nation out of Europe’s wars.

In recent decades, scholars have questioned the widely held belief that the Swiss military, with an elaborate complex of underground Alpine bunkers, deterred an invasion by the Nazis, instead arguing that Adolf Hitler left the neutral Swiss alone because he wanted to use its banks and other services that would have been cut had he invaded.

The Swiss government had urged voters to retain the compulsory military service rather than turn to a professional army of volunteers — counter to what most Western European nations have done since the Cold War. About 20,000 soldiers a year attend basic training for 18 to 21 weeks.

Military reforms have reduced the army’s reserve of troops to 155,000, down from about 625,000 just over a half-century ago.

Along with the conscription proposal, two other referendums were on the national ballot. Swiss voters approved all-night shopping at some gas stations on highways and urban areas, and agreed to give the government more control over vaccination programs. There also were more elections and votes among local communities and cantons.

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