KINSHASAKINSHASA (Reuters) - At Kinshasa's hectic Victoire roundabout, banners urge people to back "dialogue for the good of Congo", but to many the timing of President Joseph Kabila's call for political talks less than a year before he is supposed to step down is highly suspicious.
"If they thought that we had to have the dialogue, why the dialogue at the end of the mandate?" 38-year-old technician Chine Tshiboko asked, to nods from a crowd of men around him in the capital of one of Africa's biggest and most chaotic states.
Under Democratic Republic of Congo's constitution the president is allowed only two terms. Kabila will complete his second this year, but has refused to promise to leave power at elections due in November.
With little public support for altering the constitution to allow Kabila to run again, his opponents believe he has opted instead for a "glissement", or "sliding" of the electoral calendar to prolong his days in power.
Already, local and provincial elections scheduled for last year have failed to happen, and some of Kabila's allies have suggested delays of up to four years in the presidential election to clean up inaccurate and incomplete voter lists.
Apart from a flare-up a year ago when at least 40 people were killed, the apparent delaying tactics have averted major confrontation.
But an emboldened opposition is refusing to participate in the proposed "national dialogue" which it sees as a Kabila gambit to cling to power, and the glissement strategy could soon hit the buffers.
A coalition of opposition parties and activist groups has announced a series of rallies from next week and the powerful Roman Catholic Church has called for protest marches on Feb. 16.
"The next round of bargaining may happen in the streets of Kinshasa," said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group at New York University.
Kabila became president in 2001 after his father's assassination and then secured two terms under the current constitution by winning elections in 2006 and 2011 - the latter marred by massive fraud, according to observers.
The government says it does not have the money or capacity to hold the local, provincial and national polls that are all slated before the end of 2016, an argument his opponents dismiss as a stalling tactic.
In the 55 years since independence, Congo has never had a peaceful transfer of power, and the demise of long-term autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko in the mid-1990s helped to provoke regional wars that sucked in nine other countries and killed millions.
The government denies it is trying to delay the polls and has thrown its weight behind the national dialogue, arguing that this is the only way to resolve the impasse.
The normally taciturn Kabila delivered three speeches on the subject in one month alone late last year, and state media have blanketed the airwaves with appeals to participate.
The largest opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), says it supports the dialogue idea, although it has imposed strict conditions on its participation, insisting on an international mediator and no delay to the presidential vote.
Andre Alain Atundu, the spokesman for Kabila's ruling coalition, said he was confident the UDPS would join once the United Nations appointed a mediator, as both sides want, though he said the dialogue would go ahead regardless.
However, most of the other major opposition parties are boycotting the negotiations, suspecting they will be used to extend Kabila's mandate, possibly by installing a power-sharing transitional government and then later trying to change the constitution.
Either way, protesters will soon be on the streets, testing the government's ability to manage popular pressure and hold together an increasingly fragile coalition.
Though opposition parties struggled to mobilise large crowds at rallies last year, the Church's intervention could prove critical in a country where 40 percent of the population identifies itself as Catholic.
Vital Kamerhe, president of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), another large opposition party, said the protests would present Kabila with a stark choice.
"There will only be two options," he said. "Either the government carries out massacres, or the government says to itself, no, the lesser evil – and that which is good for everyone – is to organise the elections."
Significant protests could place Kabila's coalition under strain. Analysts, however, say it is difficult to predict the reaction of security forces and that Kabila's shrinking majority due to defections has allowed him to buy time with his remaining allies by exercising increased patronage.
Pascal Kambale, former Congo country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, predicted that increased isolation would force Kabila to start negotiating his departure, but doubted street pressure would force him out this year.
"I expect some kind of glissement, a dialogue without amending the constitution but agreeing he will be there for two or three years," Kambale said.
Others in Kinshasa fear violence if the dialogue is spurned.
"The presidential majority is telling us that if you don't come to the dialogue we will be at war," said lawyer Landri Pongo Onya. "They have declared war on the people."
(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Ed Cropley and David Stamp)