HONG KONG, Nov 16 (Reuters) Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp faces a stiff test of its popularity this Sunday with four-yearly district council elections that could impact on bigger polls ahead and ongoing constitutional reforms aimed at full democracy.
Though district councillors wield little real power, the polls are expected to be the most fiercely contested since Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997 -- with pro-democracy and pro-establishment parties keen to crank up momentum before major legislative elections next year.
The two opposing camps have locked horns over the constitutional reforms which are aimed at democracy with Beijing's approval.
Hong Kong was handed back to Communist Party-ruled China with the guarantee of a high degree of autonomy and has maintained free-wheeling business and social ways of life without universal suffrage, an idea the British only promoted in the dying days of colonial rule.
Hong Kong's mini-constitution promises direct elections as the ''ultimate aim'' but is vague on a timetable, giving Beijing's leaders scope to dictate the pace. In 2004, Beijing ruled out direct elections in the city until at least 2012.
Thousands took part in a democracy march last month, calling for direct elections in 2012 -- but nowhere near the half a million who tuned out for anti-government protests in 2003.
Nearly 900 candidates are competing for around 400 seats in a multitude of districts in a direct, first-past-the-post vote.
''The competition is very tight,'' said Democratic Party Chairman Albert Ho, adding the pro-democracy camp would field its largest lineup -- well over 200 candidates.
''If we lose very badly, we will have some implications for the coming Legislative Council elections,'' he said.
The Legislative Council is Hong Kong's mini- rubber-stamp parliament.
The democrats, who swept the polls in 2003 with around 120 seats, expect a tougher time of things this time round.
''The pro-democracy movement in general is having a hard time ... if we can maintain our existing strength that's not bad a result,'' said Joseph Cheng, an election strategist with the pro-democracy Civic Party.
The well-funded and highly mobilised pro-Beijing DAB party is confident of regaining its grassroots dominance.
''Things will be more or less back to normal this time,'' said Choy So-yuk, a senior DAB legislator, vying for a district seat.
Some analysts say the Democrats could have done more to link the district polls to a crucial legislative by-election in December involving Anson Chan, a respected ex-civil service head and staunch democracy advocate.
''Anson Chan is a charismatic figure in Hong Kong politics ... the Democrats perhaps could have done more in connecting the district council elections with the by-election,'' said Lam Wai-man, a politics academic at the University of Hong Kong.
The district polls have traditionally been a key arena for political lobbying and a nurturing ground for fresh political talent.
''We still can't clearly define a career path yet,'' said Ronald Chan, a 25-year old aspiring politician, fighting for a seat in western Hong Kong island on Sunday.
''But I think it is taking shape, and in a decade or two we may very well have career politicians.'' REUTERS SG ND1210