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Swiss Vote to Keep Army - 2001-12-02

A referendum to abolish the Swiss army has been overwhelmingly defeated. The government's argument that Switzerland needs its army to defend the country's freedom and independence won the day.

Swiss television announced that the initiative to abolish the Swiss Army has been defeated by more than 78 percent. In the end, there was no contest. The Swiss love their all-male citizen army. And they showed their support by refusing to scrap this revered institution.

Twelve years ago, a similar referendum garnered more than one-third of the vote. That was not enough to get rid of the army. But it was enough to catch the attention of politicians. They quickly instituted a number of reforms. The government reduced the size of the standing civilian force to 350,000 soldiers and cut the number of years men have to serve in the army reserve.

But times have changed. Television commentators note that the Swiss feel more insecure now than they did in 1989 when the Berlin Wall crumbled, and with it the Cold War. They say recent events have made the Swiss population feel more vulnerable and in greater need of protection. They say the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, a massacre by a gunman in a Swiss regional Parliament building shortly after that event, and last week's crash of a Crossair plane have shaken Switzerland's sense of security.

The government, which opposed the initiative, has reacted to the vote with satisfaction. Federal Counselor in the Department of Defense Samuel Schmid calls the outcome of the election a big success, especially for the country. He says the Army is important for Switzerland's security and it is needed for the defense of the country.

Paoli Gilardi is a leading member of the group "Switzerland Without an Army," which backed the initiative. Even in defeat, he remains defiant. Mr. Gilardi says Mr. Schmid knows as well as he that the Swiss Army would be incapable of defending Switzerland during a war.

Mr. Gilardi's assessment of the situation may be correct, but it carries little weight with the citizens of this small, Alpine country. They view the army as important in maintaining Switzerland's neutrality and independence.