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updated: 9/22/2013 7:39 AM

Swiss voters cast ballots on fate of Swiss army

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Associated Press

BERN, Switzerland -- For the third time in almost a quarter-century, neutral Switzerland is voting on a proposal to abolish mandatory service in its army.

Voters were heading to the polls Sunday on a referendum by pacifists and left-wing parties that would do away with military conscription.

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Swiss public broadcaster SRF reported that the polling group gfs.bern projected 73 percent of voters would reject the proposal.

Swiss voters turned down a more radical plan to scrap the army altogether in 1989 that was put forward by the Group for a Switzerland Without an Army. More than a third of voters approved that plan, causing an uproar despite its defeat.

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

Swiss voters have a close attachment 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 even rapid mobilization.

Surveys indicated that a referendum to do away with military conscription is likely to be defeated again, with more than two-thirds of the country still favoring mandatory service for most men between the ages of 18 to 34. Women can serve voluntarily.

The Swiss have long prided themselves on their army, which requires part-time service from each Swiss man, 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 has urged voters to retain the conscription service -- 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, the Swiss ballot Sunday also has referendums on mandatory vaccinations and longer shopping hours at night. There also are elections and votes among local communities and the 26 cantons (states).

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