September 14, 2012 / 5:01 PM / in 5 years

Swiss government opposes bid to scrap military service

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Activists from the Group for a Switzerland without Army (GSOA) symbolically free themselves from chains and Swiss Army uniforms during a demonstration in Bern January 5, 2012.Pascal Lauener

ZURICH (Reuters) - The Swiss government called on voters on Friday to reject a bid to scrap military service, saying the system is the best way to guarantee national security.

Opponents of military service have gathered the 100,000 signatures needed to call a referendum on the issue, which the government said would happen in the second half of 2013 at the earliest, after parliament debates the matter in coming months.

"Military service in Switzerland should be maintained. It stands for an army that is anchored in society," the cabinet said in a statement on Friday after its weekly meeting.

"The combination of military service and the militia system is still the best because it is the most efficient and effective army model for Switzerland."

All able-bodied Swiss men have to perform military service and keep their guns at home after they have done their time so they can be called up in the event of an invasion. Conscientious objectors can opt to perform a period of social work instead.

But neutral Switzerland abstained from two world wars and has not fought a battle since 1515, raising questions about the need for such a large army, especially as most European nations have abandoned the draft after the end of the Cold War.

Opponents say maintaining a military of 200,000 - the biggest army in Europe relative to population size - wastes resources that would be better spent on upgrading armaments.

"The time has come for a change from military service to a voluntary militia ... the size of the army needs to be cut massively," the centre-left Social Democrats said in a statement.

Austrians will vote in January on whether to abolish military service and Germany has also been discussing scrapping the draft.

Reporting by Emma Thomasson; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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