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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's Chief Executive said Wednesday that public discussion on the city's gradual move towards universal suffrage would begin next month amid mounting pressure from politicians demanding democratic reform.
"We must be pragmatic and sit down and talk about the best methods for 2012 so that our election systems can be more democratic and move nearer to the goal of universal suffrage," Donald Tsang told reporters after delivering his annual policy address.
A timetable was already in place in the former British colony, he said, and "we shall as soon as possible try to make sure that we can lay a very good foundation for the elections in 2012."
While his speech focussed mostly on the economy, Tsang pledged to reach a public consensus on how best to hold more democratic elections in 2012 for the city's leader and legislature. That, he said, would be a base for holding direct elections in 2017.
The eagerly-awaited public consultation takes place after the political reform process was put on hold for almost a year so the government could focus on the economy amid the financial crisis.
Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, enjoys a unique position as the most politically liberal city in China, with Beijing's Communist leaders deciding in 2007 to allow universal suffrage in the city in 2017.
Opposition pro-democracy politicians are angry at the prospect of waiting almost a decade for fully democratic procedures and doubt the Communist Party will allow them to be implemented without making it difficult for opposition candidates to come to power.
"There is a suspicion that the promise of universal suffrage in 2017 is not genuine," said political commentator and former government official Joseph Wong.
Tsang, wearing his trademark bow-tie, had been confronted during his policy address by pro-democracy hecklers. They called for direct elections in 2012 and held aloft yellow cards reading "Bow Tie. Keep Your Election Promise."
Tsang pledged to fully engage pro-democracy advocates, who have threatened to resign from the city's 60-member legislature in which they hold 23 seats, should public discussions prove less liberal or far-reaching than hoped.
"If we cannot make progress then Hong Kong people will be disappointed," he added. "We will proceed very carefully."
(Reporting by James Pomfret, Editing by Ron Popeski)

Reuters