VIENNA Austrians voted to keep military conscription on Sunday, bucking a trend towards replacing conscripts with professional armies in Western Europe that began with the end of the Cold War.
The neutral Alpine nation that once stood at the frontier between the Warsaw Pact and NATO voted 60 percent in favor of maintaining the draft, which is seen as binding civil society to the military and instilling a sense of citizenship in young men.
The result is a blow to Chancellor Werner Faymann's Social Democrats, who had argued a smaller, professional force would be more suited to modern military reality, more cost-efficient and fairer to young people.
The 45,000 strong Austrian armed forces fight no wars but are active in international peacekeeping, especially in ex-Yugoslavia and the Golan Heights, and are also highly visible in dealing with domestic natural catastrophes such as floods.
"I'm happier having people of all psychological types in the army, not just people who are really into it," said Andreas Gorbach, a 53-year-old advertising consultant who voted for the draft despite saying he did not enjoy his own time in the army.
Much of Western Europe has scrapped compulsory military service in the last two decades. Germany phased it out in 2011, following France, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and others who have switched to voluntary forces.
Britain scrapped conscription in 1960.
Many experts had argued that Austria, where six months in the military or nine months of community service are still compulsory for all 18-year-old men, should follow suit.
"What Austria requires is a professional army that is perhaps smaller but more capable," said Henrik Heidenkamp, research fellow in defense, industries and society at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
"You need to spend a lot of resources, not only financial resources but also human resources, in order to train these people ... and in the end basically they drop out without really having deployed these skills that they were trained for."
The Austrian armed services have a budget of about 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion), or 0.6 percent of GDP.
Many voters were swayed by warnings from emergency services organizations such as the Red Cross, who had said they would not be able to cope without the 14,000 young men who opt for community service each year.
Petra, a 39-year-old lawyer casting her vote in favor of ending conscription in Vienna on Sunday, disagreed.
"Community service clearly borders on forced labor," she said. "We should pay for this work more fairly and should only let it be done by those - men and women, and of whatever age - who actually want to do it and are interested."
According to first results, participation was a better-than-expected 50 percent in the referendum, which was called only because the Social Democrats and their junior coalition partner, the conservative People's Party (OVP), had reached a stalemate.
It is the first real contest between the ruling parties, who are becoming more openly antagonistic to one another as they gear up for several state polls in the coming months, culminating in national elections by September at the latest.
"The government has brought about an ersatz election with the referendum," said Peter Filzmaier, professor of political communication at the Danube University, Krems.
The far right-wing Freedom Party (FPO), which wanted to keep the draft, and eurosceptic Team Stronach have gained ground against the centrists over the past months.
However, it is unclear whether they have enough in common with the OVP to be able to form a right-of-centre coalition.
Advertising consultant Gorbach said: "Both parties' arguments were idiotic ... The OVP and the FPO got a gift they did nothing to deserve."
($1 = 0.7524 euros)
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl and Angelika Gruber; Editing by Sophie Hares)