HONG KONG (AFP) - A disappointing turnout at Hong Kong's first democracy rally since the end of mass street demonstrations shows the city is suffering from "protest fatigue" and new longer-term strategies are needed to drive reform, analysts say.
A procession of yellow umbrellas, the symbol of the democracy movement, edged slowly through the centre of the city on Sunday afternoon - the first time demonstrators had gathered after more than two months of street blockades ended in December when protest camps were cleared.
Organisers said that 13,000 people attended the march - with police estimating 8,800 - far below the 50,000 hoped for and a fraction of the 100,000 who took to the streets at the height of the rallies.
China has pledged that Hong Kong can choose its own leader for the first time in 2017, but says the candidates must be vetted by a loyalist committee, which campaigners dismiss as "fake democracy".
In the face of their failure to achieve any concessions over political reform, some supporters are now questioning whether it's worth taking to the streets.
"Beijing has played the game quite smartly. They have convinced most Hong Kong people that even if they were to replay Occupy Central, that would not be sufficient to sway Beijing," says political analyst Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The city is now divided over whether to accept Beijing's version of universal suffrage - which will go before Hong Kong lawmakers this year - and hope for improvements later, or to veto the plans, said Lam, who added that a "tangible roadmap" from the democracy camp could help galvanise public support.
With little chance of a sudden change of mind from Beijing on reforms, student activists and campaigners are advocating longer-term strategies.
The founders of the Occupy Central group have said they are now pushing for greater education about the democracy movement and a social charter.
There is also a drive to get young voters to the polls and student leaders elected.
"The movement should be done in a different way if going to the streets to protest doesn't work," says 33-year-old computer programmer Robert, who was a regular at the protest camps but who did not attend Sunday's march.
"We can try to make a difference within the system. Can student activists try to influence others by joining lower level elections, then make changes as they move up the ranks?" Robert says he has turned his back on the street protests because, in his view, they made no difference.
"I just don't have the motivation. Occupying the roads was the most radical thing I have ever done, and still nothing was achieved," he told AFP.
Author and political analyst Michael DeGolyer agrees that street protests now are ineffective - but says that the public is waiting to see what happens as the key political reform package moves through the Hong Kong legislature.
The bill to enact Beijing's framework of reforms will be put to a legislative council vote, expected in June, and pro-democracy lawmakers have vowed to block it - a move which could result in Hong Kongers having no vote at all in 2017 elections.
"The public don't see the point of marching right now. Nothing has happened to bring people back to the streets," says DeGolyer, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong's Baptist University.
Activists had "misread" public sentiment by organising Sunday's rally, he said.
DeGolyer warned that if the government pushes through unpopular policies it would trigger "a second Occupy movement... likely to be much more violent than anything we've seen up to this point".
"(City leader) CY Leung is sitting on a volcano very close to erupting. The tiger is asleep but not dead." Hong Kong's democracy movement is now in a "transition period" said Ivan Choy, a political analyst at Chinese University, with organisers and supporters recovering after the "exhausting" street blockades.
"People have to take a rest and equip themselves for further action," he said, suggesting this could take a different form than previously.
"Leaders should think about their next steps: traditional peaceful protests may not attract some people anymore," says Choy.
"They might prefer a more radical form of protest."