Last Sunday's Election Committee poll was certainly less insignificant than the mixed, if not gloomy, pre-election assessments had indicated. While the result of the chief executive election remains predetermined, the ride is set to be much more interesting. With an estimated 134 out of 800 Election Committee members set to nominate Civic Party legislator Alan Leong Kah-kit to stand for the chief executive election, a real contest with the incumbent Donald Tsang Yam-kuen on March 25 looks certain. The battle lines between the establishment (Donald Tsang) and the opposition (Civic Party, the Democratic Party and their allies) are being drawn. More important, the surge of support for the democrats' election bid from some professional sub-sectors has given fresh impetus to the otherwise dispirited democratic movement. Veteran politician Allen Lee Peng-fei, who admitted that support for the democrats in the functional constituencies-based election had been underestimated, said: 'A new game of democracy has begun. Beijing will have to spend some time to decide the rules.' The jury is still out over how the political fallout from the December 10 elections will settle in Beijing. Mr Lee, who is a local deputy of the National People's Congress, said Beijing was likely to be shocked by the strength of the clamour for democracy, especially from Hong Kong's aspiring middle class. 'I don't know whether it is good or bad. The central government will have no idea at the moment how to handle the issue of universal suffrage in 2012. Ostensibly, they don't want to allow universal suffrage in 2012. But increasingly, people think asking for a road map and a timetable is not an unreasonable demand. 'Based on the EC election, it has become clear you cannot block the democrats from contesting the issue of universal suffrage even if you have a nomination committee (similar to the present Election Committee) to decide who will qualify as a candidate.' Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok fears Beijing might not be able to make sense of the surprising result given its generally hardline mindset on the functional constituency-based elections. 'From the positive perspective, they should now understand better the democratic aspirations of the middle class,' he said. 'But I'm worried that mainland officials would rather err on the side of conservatism than liberalism. They might not dare to suggest bolder ideas to handle the question of universal suffrage. 'What you are likely to see is a vicious cycle of bureaucratic inertia.' Reaction from mainland officials towards the election has been markedly cautious. They expressed overall satisfaction about how the election was conducted, without going into the sensitive area of results. Similarly, Mr Tsang has refrained from commenting on the democrats' performance and the likely challenge from Mr Leong. Mr Tsang is scheduled to pay his annual duty visit to Beijing by the end of this month, during which he is expected to brief state leaders on the election and the preparation for the March election. There is no indication so far on whether he will declare his expected re-election bid before or after the nomination process begins in mid-February. Pundits said Mr Tsang was now coming under increasing pressure to launch his campaign sooner, given the growing momentum of Mr Leong's campaign. But a Tsang team member, who did not want to be named, said: 'I have no idea when he [Mr Tsang] will announce his re-election plan. I don't think he's under more pressure. This is just psychological warfare tactics by the democrats. With or without a competitor, Donald will still mount a full election campaign - just like what he did last year.' Senior government officials say the incumbent chief executive, faced with dwindling support, could be at a disadvantage in the election. 'He does not have support from the business sector, big corporations and political parties. Support from the civil service has been half-hearted,' one said. Another added: 'The challenger has enjoyed the blessing of ignorance. As the incumbent, Mr Tsang well knows that many policy ideas are easier said than done.' Mr Leong said last week the best way to secure his nominations was to put forward a set of practical, feasible policies for public debate. 'Public opinion is clear: people want to see change, competition and democracy'. I hope I will be able to give people a choice,' he said. Professor Ma, who is an associate professor of Chinese University's government and public administration department, said: 'As Alan Leong steps up his campaign with a more detailed platform, Mr Tsang will certainly feel the heat. He will have to respond. The dilemma is that he has to be careful in his response. 'He cannot overpromise as he is the one who does the job. His understanding and knowledge about policies could become a liability. It will not be surprising if the popularity gap between the two will be shortened as the election campaign proceeds.' Executive councillor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said Mr Tsang would have no alternative but to go to the people during his campaign - as Mr Leong was already doing. 'A quasi-universal-suffrage election will begin,' Professor Cheung said. 'If [Mr Tsang] merely sets his eyes on the 800 Election Committee members, the public will feel alienated. The election results show clearly people want to see a contest of hearts and minds, policy platform and vision and articulation of ideas. 'Even though we have not yet introduced universal suffrage, people generally hope to have a degree of participation. Yes, it is still essentially a small-circle election. But if it becomes a high-quality, small-circle election Beijing will feel more relaxed towards Hong Kong politics and the democrats. 'It depends a lot on how the democrats play the game. They could play up their contradictions with Beijing or they could give a positive message about their ideas and visions for the long-term development of Hong Kong. 'The crux of the issue of universal suffrage is Beijing's fears about the scenario of democrats coming to power. Their concerns will be significantly eased if the democrats could demonstrate through this election there won't be a sea change even if they gain power. 'It is too early to tell whether the election fallout will be negative or positive,' said Professor Cheung, who teaches political science at City University. Democratic Party legislator Cheung Man-kwong said last week's election success had posed a challenge for the democrats to better prepare themselves to become a real alternative. 'We should no longer run on a 'pressure group-style' platform,' he said. 'If we want to get the people behind our campaign we need to come up with a feasible policy platform that blends ideals and reality. 'Donald Tsang will use his knowledge of policymaking to challenge our platform. We must prepare well.' The legislator, who represents the education functional constituency, said Beijing would change its entrenched views towards the pan-democrats if Mr Leong was able to demonstrate that the mainstream pan-democrats also embraced harmony and moderate views. 'It will be a good thing if the contest also helps bring about positive development of government-Legco relations,' Mr Cheung said. 'We're not going to win this time. We may have to try the second, or even the third time [before universal suffrage]. Whether or not we are already prepared is not important. We have to give it a try.' Mr Cheung, a core member of the Democratic Party's mainstream faction, said the pan-democratic camp needed to overcome the sharp divide over its basic position on the 'small-circle' chief executive election. 'We should realise street politics is not the only way to fight for democracy. We could agree to disagree on taking different paths in order to get stronger before we get united when the time is ripe.' Mr Lee has urged the pan-democrats to consider the idea of forming a grand coalition in the long run. Regardless of the outcome of the March 25 election, he said a shadow cabinet was likely to emerge during Mr Leong's campaign. 'It will continue to exist to monitor government policies and make it more difficult for the government to pursue strong governance,' he said. 'That may not necessarily be a bad thing for Mr Tsang. With the drastic changes in the political scene, he may be in a stronger position to ask for Beijing's support in bolstering the government's authority.' Democrat Mr Cheung observed: 'As far as the election campaign is concerned, Donald Tsang can handle the challenge from Alan Leong easily. He knows how the government runs, understands the issues inside out. The bigger problem is for him to deal with the political blackmail from pro-government forces who like to use their votes to seek gains. You'll see more of its kind as the election draws nearer.'