By Aaron Ross and David Lewis
KINSHASA (Reuters) - When protests erupt in Kinshasa, Congo's sprawling riverside capital, politicians usually trot out the adage that they won't last more than a couple days because people need to find food for their families.
That assumption faces its sternest test in years on Dec. 19, a date that marks the end of President Joseph Kabila's second term in office and which was intended to herald the Democratic Republic of Congo's first peaceful transition of power.
Kabila's allies say the president now plans to stay on beyond that date, thanks to a deal with some rivals to delay an election due last month to April 2018, ostensibly because of logistical difficulties registering millions of voters.
However, the main opposition bloc has rejected this plan, accusing Kabila of postponing elections to cling to power. It wants demonstrations to force him out if talks mediated by the Catholic Church fail to produce a last-ditch compromise.
The last major flare-up over election delays killed at least 50 people, mainly protesters, in September.
Many in Kinshasa are bracing for trouble, stocking up on canned sardines, rice and sugar. The stretched United Nations peace-keeping mission is re-allocating some troops to reinforce its presence in the city. Expatriates will go into lock down and are temporarily evacuating their families.
Kabila's camp is outwardly unrattled after two recent rallies called for by opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi were snuffed out by a heavy police presence. Police officers played football in areas there the protests were due to be held.
Adversaries hope a crescendo of frustration with Kabila – in power since 2001 – will combine with economic hardship and rare unity within the opposition to whip up momentum.
"NO LONGER AFRAID"
"We are dying every day in any case so we are no longer afraid of death," Marcellin Zongola, a member of the opposition UDPS party, said above anti-Kabila chanting at a funeral for party members killed in September.
Anger at Kabila's refusal to state openly that he will step down is most palpable in Kinshasa, a vibrant, chaotic opposition stronghold that is home to about 12 million people.
Tension has spread to soccer stadiums in a reminder of how fans fuelled protests in 1959 calling for independence from Belgium. The live television broadcast of an international match in October was cut after thousands chanted that Kabila's time was up. The national soccer league has been suspended.
From trying to end colonial rule to pressuring Mobutu Sese Seko to accept democratic reforms, Congolese have frequently taken to the street, though seldom successfully.
"Popular protest movements have rarely achieved their desired ends," the International Crisis Group think-tank warned in a report in October. "More often, they have been manipulated for political gain or been unable to shift political dynamics."
In 2006, Kabila oversaw the first free vote in decades, ushering in a period of relative stability and economic growth as mining firms invested billions of dollars. As his second term draws to an end, though, he has cracked down on rivals and critics, throwing many in prison and banning protests.
The repression has coincided with an economic slump, which has seen the Congolese franc lose nearly 30 percent of its value against the dollar this year and the government cut its budget to around $5 billion for a nation of 70 million.
ACTS OF DESPERATION
Albert Moleka, Tshisekedi's former chief of staff, admitted the opposition lacked the clout to mobilize large numbers by itself but warned economic woes could fuel looting and violence.
"The population's frustration has reached a very worrying level," he said. "You have to watch out for acts of desperation."
The government has appeared particularly anxious about efforts to mobilize social movements, even if their impact has been limited, for now.
In 2015, Congolese authorities arrested visiting Senegalese and Burkinabe activists, accusing them of terrorism. Local pro-democracy movements face regular harassment.
Opposition leaders insist protest plans are strictly non-violent but in September mobs attacked police stations and lynched several officers. Some weapons abandoned by police were collected by protesters, opposition activists said.
One security source showed Reuters photographs of flammable canisters that officers had collected in Kinshasa. The canisters had been distributed to opposition supporters to be used in future protests, the source said.
In a rare speech last month, Kabila accused politicians and foreigners of manipulating youths. "It is morally reprehensible to try to come to power by spilling Congolese blood."
Human Rights Watch has accused security forces and pro-Kabila youth groups of taking part in looting and paying thugs to attack opposition demonstrations, leading to violence that would justify a police crackdown.
One member reported receiving $35 to instigate violence.
Patrick Nkanga, head of the ruling PPRD party's youth league, denies these charges but the party has held public training sessions for members on "counter-insurrection".
The International Criminal Court has warned it is monitoring the situation and the United States and European Union have already sanctioned top pro-Kabila officials for allegedly violating human rights and blocking elections.
Many activists draw inspiration from Burkina Faso, where veteran leader Blaise Compaore was ousted in 2014 by popular protests while seeking to tweak his constitution.
But Congo remains a far more fragmented political landscape and there is deep cynicism of opposition politicians too, many of whom have recycled in and out of power over the decades.
"It will take a lot more pressure from the street, the Church, the international community and the opposition than there is now for (Kabila) to go," a Kinshasa-based diplomat said.
(Editing by Peter Millership)