The first step may be the hardest, as the old maxim goes, but for Hong Kong, the third step is likely to be the most difficult yet in the road to universal suffrage. Over the last year, the city has debated the electoral reforms needed to choose its chief executive by popular vote in 2017, embarking on what the government calls the five-step procedure. Last August, as part of the first steps, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress put up a framework requiring the chief executive to be chosen from among two or three candidates backed by at least half of the 1,200-member nominating committee. This has been at the heart of the fight between pro-democracy forces, who reject these conditions, and pro-Beijing forces, who believe they are a fundamental step forward. But the clashes have not changed the fact that the ball is still in the Hong Kong government's court. It must put together a reform proposal to effect these changes and get it passed by the Legislative Council. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor will tomorrow present the government's consultation document on the reforms to Legco. Seminars, forums and publicity campaigns organised by the government and civic organisations will follow. Residents and groups will be encouraged to give feedback. Even the staunchest government supporters admit the exercise looks set to end unhappily. Lam faces the near-impossible task of putting together a proposal that will need to win the support of two-thirds of Legco. The pan-democrat camp, which comprises 27 of the 70 Legco members has already vowed to boycott the consultation and veto the package. At a public function on December 19, Lam put on a brave face when she said the "common wish" of Hongkongers is for the chief executive to be elected by universal suffrage. She urged all sides to "strive towards this goal together, so that five million eligible voters can cast their ballot in 2017". While many ideas were initially thrown up on what the consultation document could cover, analysts say the room to manoeuvre has narrowed, with President Xi Jinping telling Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying that Hong Kong must stick to the framework set by the central government, during the latter's visit to Beijing on December 26. "The development [of political reform] should fit in the actual situation of Hong Kong, be orderly and in accordance with the law ... and be conducive to Hong Kong's prosperity and stability," Xi said before an hour of talks behind closed doors at the Zhongnanhai complex in Beijing. Hong Kong officials privately admit their difficulties with the latest phase. One official involved in the process said: "We are making the most of the narrow room under the Standing Committee's framework although we well know the chance of Legco passing the proposal for the 2017 election is very slim." Another government source told the Post that the consultation is likely to focus on a few technical topics only. "We will seek the public's view on key issues including a low entry threshold [for candidate's to run], the nominating process, [such as] how to make it more transparent, and how should we form the nominating committee … though politically, there's not much room to reshuffle the committee's make-up," the source said. Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, a Beijing loyalist, said the limited nature of the consultation was understandable, given the pan-democrats' boycott. "The government has no choice but to continue this step," he said. Veteran democrat Albert Ho Chun-yan dismissed the process as one of officials merely going through the motions. "They are just doing their job without any hope the proposal will be passed," he said. "Whether you like it or not, the veto looks inevitable and the society will need to discuss it all over again." He appealed again to the central government to reconsider its August decision. Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit said: "The so-called room for discussion … or small tinkerings would not give our voters a real democracy or a real choice. "Unless the authorities are revisiting the 831 resolution [the August 31 decision that set the reform framework], I don't think [officials] should entertain any hope whatsoever that we will support the package." Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said Occupy Central had made Beijing toughen its stance, leaving little room for negotiation. He would like more scrutiny and changes in the composition of the nominating committee, something which was raised in the first round of public consultation last year, when lawmakers had suggested new subsectors for women and young people. But Liberal Party leader Vincent Fang Kang said that they were told during their meeting with Lam in early December that such issues would be dealt with later. While the pan-democrats have stated that their positions remain fixed, public opinion appears to have shifted markedly over the past few months. In a poll conducted by Chinese University from December 8 to 12, 38 per cent of just over 1,000 people surveyed said Legco should endorse the government's reform package, even if it followed Beijing's restrictive framework. The poll's last day coincided with the final police clearance of the Occupy protest base in Admiralty. The figure was 9 percentage points higher than it had been at the start of the protests, on September 28. Support for lawmakers to vote down the framework also fell 10 percentage points to 43 per cent. Patience with them may also be running thin. While questions remain over the next phase of consultation and whether the pan-democrats will support the bill, some analysts point to a precedent. In the previous political reform - for the 2012 chief executive and Legco elections - Democratic Party lawmakers made the dramatic change to vote for the government's proposal after Beijing gave a last-minute concession, allowing five "super lawmaker" seats that allowed the city's 3.2 millions voters to cast ballot in the district council constituency. These seats were an 11th hour addition, allowing more people to cast a vote. This time, however, the stakes are higher. Ho said the hopes of similar concessions from Beijing looked all but impossible. "If Beijing was prepared to make concessions, they would have done so earlier and not laid down the stringent framework on August 31," he said. If the reform package is rejected, the status quo will prevail. Hong Kong will continue to choose its chief executive by a 1,200-strong election committee, as in 2012. That is a scenario all sides may be trying hard to avoid, but is a scenario becoming increasingly likely. Additional reporting by Peter So. Constitutional reforms: The main questions What's the issue? In 2017, Hongkongers are supposed to be able to choose their chief executive by universal suffrage. But how they will choose and who can contest are among the contentious points in a long-running debate on constitutional reforms. Last August, the central government spelt out how it ought to be done: only two or three candidates can run, and only after receiving the support of at least half of a 1,200-member nominating committee. The conditions provoked widespread opposition from various groups including the students and Occupy leaders who insist it must be a direct vote. Their 79-day civil disobedience movement ended without a breakthrough. The government must now embark on the next step, which is a consultative process that will shape the final proposals which must then be tabled as bill before the Legislative Council. The bill then needs two-thirds approval of the Legco before it can be passed. And here lies the Gordian knot. The 27 pan-democrats who are vehemently opposed to the pre-selection conditions have vowed to boycott consultations and veto the proposals. What will the next phase of consultation cover? Details will be unveiled tomorrow. Sources indicate that while the conditions will not change, the thrust of the consultations will be to ensure transparency in the way the candidates are chosen and to ensure they receive some form of public backing. Beijing-friendly politicians had initially identified five topics for discussion. One of these is the setting of a two-stage process for potential candidates, allowing them to secure 100 to 150 nominations before going to round two for final selection. Another is setting a cap on the number of nominations a potential candidate can get, so he does not wipe out others even before the race begins, by say getting nominations from 700 members of the 1,200-member nominating committee. Yet another is to set the number of votes the nominating committee members can have. Others have also talked about allowing the committee to run opinion polls to better gauge the wishes of the people. What about the composition of the 1,200-member nominating committee? Much ink has been spilt on this issue as there fears that the committee will only pick pro-Beijing candidates. Right now, the committee consists of four sectors - business, professional, social and political - each with several subsectors. It has been criticised as unfair, not least because a small subsector such as agriculture and fisheries elects 60 representatives, while teachers and lawyers choose just 30 representatives each. Voter participation is also imbalanced. For example, all 70 members of the Legislative Council, returned by millions, sit on the Election Committee, while just 250,000 voters from the subsectors - or less than a tenth of the city's electorate - choose the rest of the committee members. But the government has said that the issue of members will be discussed only at the next stage and is not part of constitutional reforms.