VIENNA (AP) — Austrians voted overwhelmingly Sunday to retain their conscript army, with exit poll projections showing around 60 percent rejecting the proposed change to a force of professional soldiers.
The wide margin of victory for those backing the status quo came as a surprise, for pre-election surveys had that side ahead by only a few percentage points.
Two polling organizations — ARGE Wahlen and SORA — showed only about 40 percent of those who cast ballots looking to change the system. They also showed a relatively high turnout in rural areas — up to 60 percent in many regions — compared to Vienna, with 40 percent.
Overall turnout was projected at close to 50 percent.
With conscripts frequently recruited to help prevent natural catastrophes — or clean up afterward — rural voters in this Alpine nation were clearly receptive to arguments that a professional army would not be filling sandbags to prevent flooding or shoveling out basements after mudslides.
They also heeded warnings that changing the system would hit Austria's social sector, which depends on conscientious objectors who serve as ambulance drivers, attendants at senior citizens' homes and in other community jobs that are hard to fill because of poor pay.
While formally non-political, the referendum reflected preferences between Austria's two uneasy coalition partners and looked ahead to the national election in September.
Socialists urged voters to follow most nations in the 27-nation European Union, where 21 countries have professional armies. The centrist People's Party backed keeping the present system.
Austria's armed forces now consist of about 35,000 troops — 14,000 professionals and the rest conscripts who serve for six months — as well as a 30,000-strong part-time militia. The proposed reform foresaw 8,500 career soldiers, 7,000 who sign up for an average three years, 9,300 militia members and more focus on terrorism and cyber-attacks.
"I voted to keep this status as it is," said Jono Englander, 62. "If this turns into a professional army, where people just go because they want to, then I think we are going to send ... our young people often to wars."
Proponents of change argued it was time to streamline the armed forces.
"I think 80 percent of the countries in Europe have a professional army," said Oliver Bendt, 42. "So I think for young people it's the best way."
Others had even simpler arguments for opposing the present setup.
"I voted against it, because I don't want to go into the army," said 16-year-old Johannes Schmidt.
Associated Press video journalist Bela Szandelszky contributed.