Published on August 9, 2007
But for the already committed and deeply entrenched, the highly divergent arguments from both camps likely deepened their own convictions. Both sides were, in more ways than one, equally convincing.
The "for" and "against" arguments boil down to these:
Those in support of the draft say that a "yes" vote would ensure that democracy would return to the people. There is no perfect constitution but this 2007 draft is, in their opinion, the most "liberal". Granted there can never be a consensus on all of its controversial clauses, however once it's passed debate can continue and amendments could be made in the normal democratic process.
They insist that if it's rejected, there is no guarantee that the coup-leaders (the Council for National Security) and the Cabinet would come up with a "better" draft. It could be worse. It could be more divisive. The country could be plunged into chaos once again.
Those against the draft make it clear that endorsing the charter is tantamount to endorsing the illegitimate act of the coup. Even without that political consideration, the most controversial and divisive point splitting both sides right down the middle is the position of bureaucrats versus that of politicians.
Those in favour of the new draft say that it would free bureaucrats and independent agencies from political influence. But those who want to kill the charter draft have zoomed in on this particular issue: what the charter writers have put in the new draft would usher in yet another era of bureaucratic rule in this country.
This time round, the charter's critics insist, this sort of "bureaucratic immunity" would have the serious consequence of weakening the elected government. As one of the eloquent opponents to the draft put it in the debate: "Thai bureaucrats are not known for their honesty. Neither have they proven to be capable of solving any of the country's major problems."
A public opinion poll of about 3,500 citizens conducted by Ramkhamhaeng University's political science department on the same day as the debate showed that about 56 per cent would vote in favour of the draft, 10 per cent plan to vote against it and, significantly, 34 per cent remain undecided. Perhaps the "not-sure" respondents haven't heard all the exciting debate over the fine points of this issue. Perhaps, they wanted to hear more from all sides concerned over the next two weeks before making up their minds.
The motives driving those who oppose the coup are not identical. The pro-Thaksin elements want to portray the battle as one between a popularly elected prime minister and the coup-leaders. Academics critical of the draft, who are trying to distance themselves from the narrow and confrontational world of political manoeuvring, have directed their attacks on the question of legitimacy and what they see as the draft's concentration of political power in the judicial branch in particular and the bureaucracy in general.
In the end, when most eligible voters finally cast their votes on referendum day, the main question they will ask won't be whether the old regime is better than the new powers-that-be. They won't consider this a choice between Thaksin and the September 19 coup-makers either. The former question is probably too complicated and the latter too personal.
When all is said and done, and when voters have heard all the arguments, their decision will most likely be based on the kind of answer they receive to a very a simple, but significant, question: what's in it for me?
They will vote "yes" if they think that the charter's passage can really put Thailand back on the road to a reasonable degree of democracy, and, equally if not more important, political and social stability.
They would cast a positive vote if they thought that a no vote would further divide the country.
But if they think a "yes" vote would send the wrong signal that there is popular support for a growing military influence in the country's political landscape - or that an illegitimate act could be legitimised by simply putting up the act of going through "democratic" motions - then they will no doubt cast a strong and resounding "no" vote.