Nine months after making a landmark stride to join a pro-democracy march on December 4, Anson Chan Fang On-sang appears set to take another significant step. This time: ending the suspense over her game plan for the chief executive election. The South China Morning Post understands from sources close to Mrs Chan that her next step is one away from the post of chief executive. An announcement of her decision not to run for the top post - which will be decided next March - is expected in the next few weeks, about the time she plans to unveil the lineup and work plan of a 'core group' she will lead on a set of constitutional issues. It will also come weeks before the sub-sector elections for the 800-member election committee to select the chief executive. Speculation that Mrs Chan would stay out of the race has been growing in pro-democracy circles in the past two weeks - since her return from a holiday in Europe. She told reporters at her first public appearance upon her return that she would announce details of the core group later this month. In laying to rest the years of guessing games about her bid for the top post, the former chief secretary wants to focus, through her core group, on the substantive issues of what system of universal suffrage and what governance structure the territory should aspire to. Hopes for an electoral encounter between Mrs Chan and Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who were the two most senior civil servants straddling the 1997 handover, were raised by Mrs Chan's surprise appearance at the December 4 rally. Although she stressed she had no intention of running, her famous remarks about 'taking one step at a time' led to speculation her endgame was to take on Mr Tsang. Her high-profile publicity drive to mobilise people to join the July 1 rally a week ahead of the march gave more credence to the theory that every step she took was part of her election campaign. This was despite the fact she had never indicated explicitly her intention to challenge Mr Tsang. Quite the opposite is true. She had repeatedly expressed no interest in running. Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a Civic Party legislator, said he observed Mrs Chan had reservations about running for chief executive during a chat with her. He later denied saying on behalf of Mrs Chan that she would not run. Some key democrats contacted shared Mr Tong's feelings, but stressed they had no first-hand information. One, who did not want to be named, said: 'The fact that she has given no message [on the election] is a message itself ... The chance of her running for the post seems to be slim.' A senior government official, who also preferred anonymity, said: 'It seems that she is trying to find an exit ... She held out high hopes of contesting when she came out last December. The less-than-impressive turnout at the July 1 rally appears to have prompted her to change her mind.' Allen Lee Peng-fei, a veteran politician and a long-time friend of Mrs Chan, said: 'If I were Mrs Chan, I wouldn't contemplate the idea of contesting the post in view of the election system and the dynamics within the democratic camp. I think she has got a clearer view about the whole situation now.' Given Beijing's clear endorsement of a second term for Mr Tsang, some pundits were adamant that Mrs Chan would not run in an election knowing her chance of success was almost zero. She would have little to gain from running. Importantly, they said, Mrs Chan could also lose miserably in the other key contest - popularity. Opinion polls on the popularity of the pair conducted in the past year show Mr Tsang leading with a comfortable, consistent majority. Support for Mrs Chan ranged between 20 to 30 per cent. Mr Lee said: 'Under such an electoral system, would anyone like Mrs Chan be interested in running? She would definitely be interested if it was a universal suffrage system.' Faced with a pro-democratic camp beset by fragmentation, interpersonal rivalry and sharp differences over social policies, Mr Lee said Mrs Chan would be embroiled in factional politics if she tried to team up with the democrats in the chief executive election. 'It is clear that it is the democrats who are keen to use the popularity of Mrs Chan in the election, not Mrs Chan who is desperate to get the blessing of the democrats. You can imagine how she would bear the brunt of attacks if she flew the banner of the democrats in the election,' Mr Lee said. A Civic Party source said there were mixed feelings among the pro-democratic parties about Mrs Chan's candidacy. 'When she came out last December, the immediate reaction of some democrats was that - 'it's fine if Anson agrees to run. That saves us a lot of trouble naming a candidate. But if she doesn't, it's not a big loss to the democrats',' the source said. 'When we gave more thought to her candidacy, we knew it was far more difficult and complicated than anticipated. 'Even if we get 100 nominations as required for a formal candidate, are we able to convince her to run in an election with a pre-determined result? And for the partnership to happen, we need to work out a joint election platform. Is she prepared to sit down and talk to major democratic factions on a platform? 'It is clear Beijing is extremely concerned about her election plan. They would panic if she decided to run. You can imagine Beijing would do whatever it could to block her election bid. We would lose by an even bigger margin if Beijing intensified its efforts to block her candidacy.' A source close to Mrs Chan said Beijing had not explicitly asked her not to stand, but added that 'the writing is on the wall' and a confrontation with Beijing was the last thing she wanted. Under electoral rules, a chief executive hopeful needs to secure at least 100 nominations from the 800-member election committee to become a formal candidate. Democratic Party chairman Lee Wing-tat got less than 60 nominations in his bid to challenge Mr Tsang in the chief executive election last year. The Democrats and their allies are confident of winning 120 seats in the election committee sub-sector elections scheduled for December. Chances of grabbing more seats would grow if Mrs Chan agreed to run as their candidate. A veteran Democrat, who did not want to be identified, said a major merit of Mrs Chan's candidacy would be that the campaign would draw enormous interest in the local and international community. 'The campaign would provide a platform for us to fight for a timetable for universal suffrage ... People like Martin Lee Chu-ming genuinely believe the democratic camp would be able to fight a good battle if we had a highly popular candidate like Mrs Chan,' he said. 'But more people take a pragmatic view. With or without Anson Chan as our candidate, we face an uphill battle for democracy, as we have done for the past 20 years. 'People outside the democratic camp tend to over-estimate our relationship with Anson Chan. Except for a few like Martin Lee and Denis Chang Khen-lee who have direct contacts with her, most of us know little about her. Our relationship cannot be described as 'allies'. 'It is always difficult for the Democrats to agree on the candidate and strategy for the chief executive election. Some radicals are still opposed to participating in a small-circle election. 'It would be even more complicated and controversial if the candidate is Anson Chan. There would be more frictions within the camp.' As signs that Mrs Chan will pull out of the race grow and the election committee sub-sector elections draw closer, the democratic camp has begun giving serious thought to its election plan. Faced with growing pressure to field popular political stars such as Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, the Civic Party source said the party would soon discuss a range of election-related issues including candidate and overall strategy. 'We need to start early discussion so that we would not be seen as being led by events,' he said. Democratic Party legislator Cheung Man-kwong said: 'The democratic camp faces an important decision to come up with our own candidate before the sub-sector election. Mrs Chan has said she would 'take a step at a time'. It has become clear she is not prepared to take the step of contesting the election. 'Our rivals have indicated their choice: Donald Tsang. We will face enormous difficulty in securing 100 seats [in the election committee elections] if we cannot name our own candidate.'