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Hong Kong braces for political showdown in key reform vote
[HONG KONG] Hong Kong prepared for a political showdown on Wednesday with lawmakers set to vote on a divisive reform package and tensions high over an alleged explosives plot that police said was linked to a "radical" group.
The vote pits democracy campaigners against the government in the culmination of a fraught chapter which saw tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets last year over the controversial electoral roadmap.
Although the government's reform proposal would for the first time give all residents the right to vote for the chief executive in 2017, it adheres to a Beijing ruling that candidates must be vetted by a loyalist committee.
The plan is derided as "fake democracy" by opposition lawmakers, who have vowed to vote against it and deny the two-thirds majority it needs to pass.
Authorities Hong Kong have said repeatedly that they cannot diverge from Beijing's August ruling which sparked mass rallies that brought parts of the city to a standstill.
The bill goes before lawmakers for debate Wednesday with the vote expected to take place by Friday.
Political analyst Sonny Lo called it "a critical juncture" and said the bill was unlikely to pass due to the pan-democrats' pledge.
That paves the way for a further schism between Hong Kong and Beijing, he said.
"Beijing will lay the blame on those democrats who torpedo the political reform bill, which (it) believes represents a sincere concession from the central government."
The vote comes after police arrested 10 people on Sunday and Monday "on suspicion of conspiracy to manufacture explosives" and seized materials they said could be used to make the highly-volatile explosive TATP.
Police said one suspect had claimed to be a member of a "radical local group" named by local media as the National Independent Party.
The group was reportedly linked to the pro-democracy "localist" movement that is seeking a more independent Hong Kong.
Five men and one man were jointly charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion and were to appear in court Wednesday, while one man and three women were freed on bail pending further investigations.
But activists accused the authorities of a smear campaign, with many saying they had never heard of the group.
Pro-democracy and pro-government supporters are due to rally at the legislature Wednesday and security has been upped there as authorities warned the complex could be stormed by "radical groups".
The Hong Kong government has said political reform would be off the table if the current package is rejected.
China has not made clear what its response will be should the plan be vetoed but one senior Beijing official said on Tuesday that the city's prospects would be "very worrying".
Some fear more radicalism could emerge if the impasse continues.
"With the current political deadlock... Hong Kong is moving to a situation where it could be unstable and could be more violent," said Surya Deva, an associate professor at Hong Kong's City University school of law.
He said that groups from either the pro-democracy or pro-China camps could turn radical.
"We are going to see a different Hong Kong in the years to come if (the authorities) don't manage it well."
Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and sees much greater freedoms than on the mainland, but there are fears that those are being eroded.