How I Knifed The Swiss Army

Twenty-Five Years Ago, Young Swiss Activists Used a Ballot Initiative to Try to End My Country’s Military. They Won, Because They Knew How to Lose.

Some people in my home country of Switzerland keep trying to weaken the Swiss Army, which is famous worldwide for its neutrality and knives. The latest attempt—a national ballot initiative to abolish conscription for Swiss men and make the Army a voluntary force—failed recently. But it may not be the last such effort.

I must confess that this is my fault, at least in part. I was present at the beginning of this Swiss Army Syndrome, a continuous effort to change a revered but very questionable institution through initiatives and referendums.

In fact, the Swiss Army, in a peculiar way, changed the course of my life. Back in the Cold War years of the mid-1980s, I was a member of a group of young Swiss who wanted citizens to assert more control over the army.

Our movement was necessary. Switzerland, a country that is half the size of Maine and has a smaller population than Los Angeles County, had established one of the largest standing armies in the world—almost 600,000 soldiers. This growth had been based on anti-communist ideology and a mythological assessment of the military’s own supposed strength in withstanding the German Nazi machine during World War II. Swiss leaders said, and not without reason, that the country didn’t have an army—it was an army.

All rational efforts to modernize, reform, and downsize this XXL-sized army had been defeated, and those who suggested such a thing were accused of “treason.” So our organization, Group for a Switzerland Without an Army, seized the only weapon available to us—the powerful citizens’ initiative process—and proposed a constitutional amendment to make the unthinkable thinkable.

For the trouble of putting forward an initiative to end the Swiss Army, we were closely watched and harassed by the Swiss security agency for years. The media and the major political parties called us “blue-eyed utopians.” Nonetheless, we managed to start a broad and fascinating conversation across Switzerland, one that was big enough to draw international notice. That conversation was not just about the army, which we knew would stick around, but also about the power and potential of a direct democratic process like the initiative.

On November 26, 1989, our measure went to voters and lost by almost 2-to-1. But in a country so closely identified with its army, this was considered a major victory that opened the door to big change. The press celebrated us as “the happiest losers in history” and noted that we got a majority (70 percent) of voters under the age of 30. The vote has been credited with changing the isolationist mood of an entire nation, and opening up many other taboo subjects for discussion.

The army changed as well. A few years later, a civil service was introduced, also by popular vote, to give citizens a non-military option to perform their duty to Switzerland. The army also was downsized, from 600,000 to 100,000 men. And the Swiss Army, which once kept to itself, is now assisting the United Nations in peacekeeping and security efforts around the globe.

The vote also changed my direction. After seeing the results, it became clear to me that the real issue was not military might but the need for more democratic processes to allow citizens to make their voices heard, not merely on Election Day but every day and at every level of government. I decided to pursue a life as a journalist and activist and study direct and participatory democracy all over the world. In 2012, I helped to establish the world’s first transnational tool for direct democracy, the European Citizens’ Initiative, through which citizens of all 27 European Union member nations can propose legislation.

But back home in Switzerland, the success in 1989 led to continued initiative attacks on the Swiss Army—this time by a mixture of old leftist forces (who had initially been against our effort because they saw it as unrealistic) and young activists. Ten years after our first initiative, a second initiative with the same proposal was launched and brutally defeated. While more than 1 million Swiss wanted to abolish the Army back in 1989, less than 400,000 citizens wished to do so in 1999.

Since then, the Group for Switzerland Without An Army, which retains a strong financial and organizational backbone, has tried to reform and limit the army through smaller steps. Among these efforts were a ban on guns (defeated in February 2011 by a vote of 56-to-44) and the recent proposal to end conscription.

The results of the popular vote in late September on whether to abolish conscription for both military service and non-military civil service offered no room for interpretation. Nearly three-quarters of Swiss voters said “no.”

This has given a boost to militarization, and undone some of the good work that our original vote did. “This is a clear expression in favor of our weaponed forces,” said President Ueli Maurer of the results. He also said that a referendum scheduled for next year on whether to buy new airfighters from Sweden should be seen as an up-or-down vote on the army itself.

As a Swiss voter who lives in Sweden now (and has lived in other countries over the past two decades), I was sympathetic to the proposal and I voted to support it. But I wasn’t surprised by its defeat.

And I don’t endorse the strategy of launching yet another initiative in the near future to transform the Swiss Army. Instead of “happy losers,” this would produce even more bitter losers and more (pro-army) arrogant winners. The time has come for my colleagues back home to understand that, at least in the national mind, the Swiss Army could only be abolished once by a direct initiative—and that happened in 1989. Why not start to learn one of those democratic lessons?

One lesson: to change the militaristic mentality of certain parts of Swiss society, we need to change the context, just as we did in 1989, by pushing forward democracy and expanding participation. Switzerland, which sits in the middle of Europe, should integrate more with its continent. The continent also must embrace more democratic and participatory tools into its governance. In time, a more democratic Europe will make Switzerland’s compulsory mass army look pointless and obsolete.

Bruno Kaufmann, a newspaper and broadcast journalist, is president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe and co-president of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. He serves currently in local government in Falun, Sweden, dealing with citizen participation and elections.
Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: Becca MacLaren.
*Photo courtesy of Hellebardius.

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