HONG KONG - Hong Kong entered a political showdown Wednesday as lawmakers debated a divisive reform package ahead of a key vote, with 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 in Hong Kong have said repeatedly they cannot diverge from Beijing's August ruling, which sparked weeks of mass rallies that brought parts of the city to a standstill.
The debate began Wednesday afternoon, with the vote expected to take place by Friday.
Deputy leader Carrie Lam, one of the first speakers, warned that reform would be off the table if the package was blocked.
"This administration cannot re-launch the (reform) process... political development will inevitably come to a standstill." A front page editorial in China's People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, Wednesday urged lawmakers to pass the bill, saying "social chaos" could ensue otherwise.
"One of the starting points to promote long-term prosperity and stability in Hong Kong is the promotion of universal suffrage," it said.
Pro-democracy lawmakers sat with multi-coloured placards marked with a cross to signal their intention to reject the bill.
Hundreds of protesters from both sides gathered outside the legislature earlier Wednesday, separated by metal barriers.
Civic Party lawmaker Alan Leong urged cheering pro-democracy supporters to "continue to fight".
Meanwhile pro-government supporters waved Chinese national flags and shouted "2017, make it happen!" through loudspeakers.
City at crossroads
Political analyst Sonny Lo called the vote "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." It comes after police arrested 10 people "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 woman were jointly charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion and were due 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.
Some fear more radicalism could emerge if the political 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.
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.