Swiss Set to Keep Army as Abolitionists Head for Defeat

Swiss Army Drills for Euro Disaster as Merkel Heads to Davos
A security officer stands next to a barbed-wire fence on the perimeter of the town of Davos. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Switzerland’s 165-year-old draft is set to withstand a third abolition attempt in two decades as voters in a Sunday referendum are seen backing a military tradition that has shaped generations of business executives.

Sixty-three percent of voters are ready to reject an initiative on Sept. 22 that would replace the current universal militia service with volunteers, while 31 percent are in favor, the latest survey by gfs.bern conducted for SRG SSR showed. While challengers are seeking to cut an annual tax bill of about 4.7 billion Swiss francs ($5.1 billion) for troops, opponents have argued it would leave the nation of 8 million at risk.

“The armed forces are like a fire brigade,” said Philippe Hertig, an executive-search consultant at Egon Zehnder in Zurich, who has risen to the rank of captain in the Swiss air force during a career spanning almost three decades. “You never know if it will be used but without it, you don’t feel secure.”

Swiss voters rejected attempts to abolish draft laws in 1989 and 2001. While the government plans to cut troops by 80,000 to about 100,000, those in favor of the initiative have argued the trimmed-down army would still cost an annual 4 billion francs in lost work days.

Wuffli, Ackermann

Some 6 percent of voters were undecided whether to back the initiative, according to the gfs.bern survey conducted Aug. 30 to Sept. 7 among 1,406 people. The margin of error was about 2.7 percentage points. The share of Swiss opposed to the proposal increased 6 percentage points from an August survey.

Swiss voters are able to force a nationwide vote by collecting 100,000 signatures within 18 months.

Service in the army, known for iconic pocketknives and Papal guards, is compulsory for physically fit men from age 19. They must complete 300 days, or opt for civilian community service on ethical grounds, which lasts about 150 days longer. Women are able to join the armed forces on a voluntary basis.

Former UBS AG Chief Executive Officer Peter Wuffli, Ivo Furrer, Swiss Life Holding AG’s CEO for Switzerland, and billionaire entrepreneur Christoph Blocher are among leaders that served in the army. Josef Ackermann, former CEO of Deutsche Bank AG, Europe’s largest investment bank by revenue, rose to the rank of colonel.

The country has upheld its neutrality policy since 1815, when Swiss soldiers were last engaged in a battle on foreign soil under Napoleon Bonaparte. Troops have been used in peacekeeping missions in countries including Afghanistan and the protection of events such as the annual gathering of global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

‘Sitting Around’

Neighboring Germany, Italy and France have all abolished the draft, as has the U.S. Austrian voters earlier this year rejected an abolition in a nationwide referendum.

In Switzerland, Lorenz Stalder, 25, a law student, said “every day was the same” during his time in the military.

“It’s all paid for by taxes, but the guys are sitting around doing nothing,” said Stalder, who is required to attend an annual rifle training. “It’s tough to force young men to hang around in the army when there’s no military threat.”

Roger Federer, the 32-year-old tennis player who has won 17 Grand Slam titles, was ruled unsuitable for military service because of an unspecified reason, Blick newspaper reported. He served as a sports instructor for the civilian community service. Tony Godsick, a spokesman for Federer, could not be reached for comment.

‘Almost Irrelevant’

Riet Cadonau, CEO of Kaba Holding AG, a Swiss maker of electronic locks, says military training is “almost irrelevant” to get ahead in the executive world these days.

“Ten or 20 years ago, you served together with bankers, people from the industry, politicians,” said Cadonau, a retired air force officer, who still keeps his army-issue Colt pistol at home. “It’s no longer common to be CEO of a global company and have an active military career in parallel.”

Switzerland, which steered clear of armed conflict during both world wars, still had about 800,000 men under the age of 50 serving in the armed forces, five years after the Cold War ended in 1989. That’s about 10 percent of its population.

The Swiss have been unwilling to alter the shape of the armed forces dating back to 1848. While voters in 2003 approved a parliamentary plan to organize troops into smaller, more flexible units, they later rejected a proposal that would have ended the country’s custom of allowing soldiers to keep their army-issued pistols and assault rifles at home.

Armed Citizenry

An armed citizenry has been a cornerstone of Switzerland’s defense since the nation’s founding in 1291. Service weapons are kept at home to speed up mobilization in case the country, with a population smaller than New York City, is invaded.

To Mathieu Nahe Haenni, 22, who plans to pursue a military career while taking over his family business, the army gives a “feeling of security.” Jeremy Ruettgers, a 19-year-old from Geneva who earns about 10,000 francs for about four months of service as sergeant, agrees.

“My father and grandfather served -- it’s something I’m proud of,” said Ruettgers, who gets time off base once or twice a week. “It’s good for the experience you get, the responsibilities you assume -- you learn how to manage people, follow a plan. It’s part of the Swiss mindset.”

(Corrects job title of Ivo Furrer in eighth paragraph in story published Sept. 19.)
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