VIENNA Austrians will vote in January on whether they want to abolish military service, an issue which has divided the ruling coalition, officials said on Tuesday.
The center-left Social Democrats (SPO) and the center-right People's Party (OVP) have argued for two years over the future of the neutral country's military, with the SPO lobbying for a professional army and the OVP insisting on keeping the draft.
The parties have now agreed to put the issue to voters in a referendum, the outcome of which is hard to predict.
The SPO is banking on a clear majority, thanks to support from young, mostly urban men and the OVP is counting on votes from older people from the countryside.
A Gallup poll for the Oesterreich newspaper found 51 percent favored conscription and 45 percent wanted a professional army.
Political analyst Peter Filzmaier told Austrian radio it was unclear whether older people, while numerically superior, would turn out in strength to vote on an issue that no longer directly affects them.
Austria is one of a handful of western European countries still with a draft as governments have gradually abandoned conscription or at least put in on hold after the Cold War ended.
Austrian men deemed fit must serve six months in the military or perform civilian service when they turn 18. Women can volunteer but are not compelled to serve.
The Austrian military now has 21,000 on active duty, 24,000 reserves and 10,000 other staff, according to the defense ministry.
(Reporting by Michael Shields and Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)