VIENNA - Austrians voted overwhelmingly Sunday to retain their conscript army, with preliminary results showing around 60 percent rejecting the proposed shift to a professional force.
The wide margin of victory came as a surprise, since pre-election surveys had that side ahead by only a few percentage points.
The results, published by the Interior Ministry, had 59.8 percent backing the present system and 40.2 percent voting to change it. Overall turnout was 49 percent. Absentee votes were still to be tallied but were not expected to change the outcome.
Participation was highest in rural areas and lowest in Vienna, the capital, according to polling organizations.
More than 54 percent of the Viennese voted to have a professional armed force. But with conscripts frequently recruited to help prevent natural catastrophes - or clean up afterward - rural voters in this Alpine nation clearly felt 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 to serve as ambulance drivers, attendants for the elderly and in other low-paid community jobs.
The referendum highlighted preferences between Austria's two uneasy coalition partners. The Socialists urged voters to follow most nations in the 27-nation European Union, where 21 countries have professional armies, while 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 wanted 8,500 career soldiers, 7,000 who sign up for an average of three years, 9,300 militia members and more focus on fighting 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."
Others had a simple argument 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.