Hong Kong democracy groups to take to streets as key vote looms

HONG KONG (AFP) - Pro-democracy campaigners will take to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday ahead of a vote on the political reform package that has divided the city and sparked mass protests.

The controversial electoral roadmap, which lays out how Hong Kong's next leader should be chosen, goes for debate at the legislature on Wednesday and will be voted on by the end of the week.

It is the culmination of a fraught chapter which saw tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters bring parts of the city to a standstill late last year.

Those rallies were sparked by a ruling from Beijing that candidates in the city's first ever public vote for its leader in 2017 must be vetted.

Opposition lawmakers have vowed to vote down the election package, which sticks to the Beijing ruling.

Currently, the chief executive is elected by a 1,200 pro-Beijing committee.

Sunday's march is the first of a series of rallies which pro-democracy activists say will take place each day until lawmakers vote on the bill.

Organisers say they expect 50,000 to turn out - but are not planning to occupy the streets again.

Despite fragmentation in the pro-democracy camp, all the key players from last year's protests, which became known as the Umbrella Movement, are set to take part.

"We want to show the public that we have a united front," said Daisy Chan, spokeswoman for organisers Civil Human Rights Front.

"We want to demonstrate to the international community that those opposing fake democracy is a majority," Chan said.

Latest figures from one joint university poll showed those against the reform package taking the lead for the first time with 43 per cent, versus 41.7 in support.

A group of anonymous civil servants also took out an advert in the local Ming Pao paper Friday urging lawmakers to reject the bill.

NO QUICK FIX

Authorities have warned activists to distance themselves from "troublemakers" and said they have upped security at the legislature.

Last year's mass rallies saw sporadic violence as demonstrators clashed with police, with thousands joining the protests after tear gas was fired.

With the reform package expected to be blocked by pan-democrats, who have enough votes to stop it, analysts say there is little hope of a quick resolution to the political impasse.

"If the Beijing and Hong Kong governments continue to adopt hostile attitudes towards the opposition, it will be difficult for them to change the situation," said Ma Ngok, associate professor at Chinese University's department of government and public administration.

There is also pressure on the democracy movement, says Ma.

"They are holding their ground but the system hasn't changed. What they can do to bring genuine democracy is a challenging question for them."

However, there would be some sense of victory for the pro-democracy camp if the bill is voted down, says Surya Deva, associate professor at Hong Kong's City University school of law.

"In a way, they will see that the government has lost because... the government package is strictly based on the (Beijing) framework which the protesters were trying to resist," he said.

Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and has much greater freedoms than the mainland, but there are fears that those are being eroded.