Thailand Readies For Sunday's Referendum on New Constitution

The Thai government faces a test of credibility when it holds a referendum Sunday on a new constitution. As Ron Corben reports, the government has urged people to approve the draft, while its opponents have campaigned against it.

The Thai government's publicity campaign ahead of Sunday's constitutional referendum has included music like this on the radio and street rallies to lure as many as of the 45 million voters that it can to cast a ballot.

The ballot is a key step in Thailand's effort to restore democracy after a military coup last September ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now living in exile in Britain. If it is approved, the government can hold general elections late this year.

Mr. Thaksin has been accused of undermining independent institutions with political appointments and using loopholes in the old constitution to dominate the parliament.

After the military installed a new government, it created a panel to draft a new constitution.

Government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp says Sunday's vote is a step toward political normalcy.

"This referendum is a chance for the people to come and give their vote whether they feel that this new constitution answers all these problems or not, whether the new constitution can fill in those loopholes intended," said Mayalarp.

Among other things, the draft constitution lowers the number of members of parliament and limits how long prime ministers can hold office.

Political analysts say even if it wins, a low turnout would undermine the credibility of the government and the military committee that oversees it.

This week, both the government and its opponents held colorful and noisy rallies. There also were allegations of vote buying and other attempts to manipulate the outcome.

Opponents have accused government of intimidating voters. The opponents include Mr. Thaksin's supporters, as well as many anti-military activists.

Several key groups, including the business sector, support the proposed constitution.

Desai Mywong is a shop owner in the seaside town of Pattaya. He supports the draft because it shifts power toward the judiciary and independent institutions and curbs executive power.

"This constitution is better than the last constitution. More freedom especially for Thai people - not for the government or the official," said Mywong.

A 35-year-old information technology worker at an anti-referendum rally says no matter the result, the political outlook for Thailand remains uncertain.

"I don't support the draft constitution, because I don't agree with the coup. Although the government can pass the constitution and maybe the election occur this year, but the political conflicts still remain," he said.

A defeat for the constitution on Sunday will require the government to select a previous constitution to use, and then delay elections, probably until next year.