ALTHOUGH the elections for the Legislative Council are eight months away, they are already being billed as the most fiercely fought since the polls were first introduced in 1985.
The next Legco, as the lawmaking body is known, will serve until 2008. It comprises 30 geographically elected seats and 30 functional constituency seats.
In the geographical constituencies, around 3.7 million registered voters will choose 30 lawmakers. A proportional representation system is adopted, under which voters pick parties rather than candidates.
Functional constituency seats represent narrow interests such as the accounting, legal, medical and business sectors.
The various political parties are now mapping out their strategies and nominations for the September polls.
Even the government is seen as having joined the fray by keeping a low profile in order to boost the chances of pro-Beijing candidates in the elections.
Mr. Ma Lik, chairman of the territory's biggest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), said: 'We hope to secure at least 10 Legco seats in the forthcoming elections.'
But he added: 'In the worst-case scenario, we may not secure one seat in each of the five geographical constituencies.'
The DAB was battered by voters for its pro-government stance and its support last year for the proposed enactment of a controversial anti-sedition law.
In last November's District Council polls, the DAB won 62 seats, 21 seats fewer than in the 1999 elections.
The DAB now has 10 seats in the Legco, including six directly elected ones. To boost its electoral chances in September, the erstwhile strongly pro-government party has been distancing itself from the administration.
Mr. Ma said last month the DAB would oppose government policies which did not serve the public's best interests.
He has also told Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa the DAB did not want the government to cut spending on education, welfare and health care.
Since then, DAB lawmakers have twice opposed a government proposal to trim university funding for the 2004- 2005 academic year.
The party, however, is walking a fine line.
Pro-Beijing figures, such as tycoon and National People's Congress deputy Tsang Hin Chi, warned that the DAB could lose the support of pro-Beijing voters for opposing the administration.
The government, though, appears to have recognised that the more unpopular it is, the more it jeopardises the electoral chances of pro-Beijing candidates.
There is widespread belief in Hong Kong that the administration will stay in the background in the run-up to the Legco elections to avoid igniting controversies.
Analysts point to government inaction since the Nov 23 district polls. On Jan 7, Mr. Tung failed to set out any new policy for Hong Kong in his annual policy address.
To avoid antagonising the influential civil service, he pledged in a Jan 12 speech that there would be no more civil service pay cuts for the remaining duration of his term, which ends in 2007.
Last year's plan for a 6 per cent reduction in civil service pay over this year and the next will go ahead, however.
Financial Secretary Henry Tang has said too that he had no plans to raise taxes in his Budget speech in March. He also said a sales tax was unlikely to be introduced in the next few years.
Still, the pro-democracy camp is ready to take advantage of any government mishandling of the political situation and other crises, such as the possible return of Sars.
Pro-democracy groups, including the Democratic Party, the Confederation of Trade Unions, the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, and the Frontier, have established an informal coalition to contest the Legco polls.
They have held several meetings to coordinate their election strategy to avoid splitting the votes.
On Jan 13, the alliance proposed nominating 25 candidates to contest geographical seats. Overall, it aims to win a majority of at least 31 seats to have control over the law-making body.
At present, the pro-democracy camp has 17 directly elected and five functional constituency legislators.
The difficulty which the alliance faces is that around 40 members are jostling to be candidates.
The situation is complicated by the fact it also has to decide where popular figures, who are independents in the pro-democracy camp, should stand. They include barristers Audrey Eu and Alan Leong.
On other fronts, Democratic Party vice-chairman Lee Wing Tat said the coalition would organise a voter registration drive to attract at least 500,000 new voters.
A higher voter turnout tends to improve the chances of success of pro-democracy candidates.
Professor Li Pang Kwong of Lingnan University said: 'If the voter turnout is 65 per cent, then the pro-democracy groups could win more than half the seats in Legco.'
The voter turnout in geographical constituencies was 44 per cent in 2000 and 53 per cent in 1998.
To rev up the political momentum, Mr. Lee said the coalition is planning a second mass march on July 1, the anniversary of last year's 500,000-strong anti-government protest which shocked the Hong Kong administration and Beijing.
The first task which the pro-democracy camp and its main rival, the DAB, have to do is to determine the nomination lists for the geographical elections.
For the DAB, the issue is to decide the candidate to be named first on the nomination list for a particular constituency.
For the pro-democracy camp, there are more hurdles because there are several different parties.
They have first to agree on a unified slate of candidates to avoid vote-splitting, and then decide the names to be cited first on nomination lists.
A disgruntled candidate, whether in the pro-democracy or pro-Beijing camp, who might not be named first by his party, could break away to form his own team for the election.
Prof Cheng said: 'The coordination work is tremendously difficult.'
Separately, the pro-business Liberal Party is riding on the rise in its popularity after its chairman James Tien was hailed as a hero for blocking the enactment of the anti-sedition law. It is also planning to field several candidates in the geographical constituencies.
The Liberal Party is the third-largest in the Legco after the Democratic Party and the DAB with eight Legco members, all of whom represent functional constituencies.
Mr. Tien, who has never run in a direct election, plans to stand in the New Territories.
Apart from incumbent legislators, the party would also field new candidates to contest functional constituency seats.
Functional constituencies will see fierce contests because they will decide the balance of power in the next legislature.
Mr. Ivan Choy of the Chinese University said: 'The pro-democracy camp could win 28 seats. In an extremely optimistic scenario, it could win 30 seats.'