By David Lewis and Jonny Hogg
KINSHASA (Reuters) - On the streets of Congo's capital Kinshasa earlier this week, a car carrying a Westerner was stoned by angry locals convinced the outside world helped rig the outcome of the central African giant's presidential election.
"White man, white man, you have stolen the elections for Kabila!" they shouted in the incident, two days after incumbent Joseph Kabila was declared winner of the November 28 vote.
In a country long scarred by outside meddling, the notion of the "international community" has a bitter taste for many Congolese, from Kinshasa's poor up to the professional elite who grumble at boisterous lunch parties about foreign influence.
Kabila's main rival, 79-year-old opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, has declared himself the real winner of an election marred by chaos and widespread irregularities which he says masked an outright robbery of the vote by the Kabila camp.
While Kabila dismisses such allegations, many in the Democratic Republic of Congo - especially backers of Tshisekedi's UDPS party - accuse world powers of standing back and allowing Kabila to snatch a new term in the cynical calculation that this will open up access to Congo's sub-soil riches, from copper through to gold and oil.
Tshisekedi has called for outside help to resolve the dispute. But the fact is there is no international mandate or appetite to enter the arena to settle the festering dispute.
"I hope the UDPS is not banking on international involvement as it is not happening," said a senior diplomat in Kinshasa who is closely involved in the election process.
"The number of killings, the demonstrations ... would have to get pretty bad for that to happen," added the diplomat, who like others interviewed by Reuters requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"We're trying to create some space for mediation," the official said, referring to an ongoing low-profile strategy offering to resolve the Kabila-Tshisekedi deadlock and end election-linked violence that has killed at least 20 people.
The next few days will prove crucial, as Congo waits for its Supreme Court to decide whether to validate provisional results that gave Kabila 48.97 percent of the vote against 32.33 percent for Tshisekedi.
Some draw comparisons with Ivory Coast, where last year's vote resulted in two men claiming victory until U.N. and French forces helped to facilitate the arrest of incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and install his challenger Alassane Ouattara in power.
But there is no chance of a repeat scenario in Congo.
Unlike in Ivory Coast, where the United Nations was able to make its own tally of votes and was mandated to sign off on results showing Ouattara the victor, its MONUSCO mission in Congo helped with logistics but has no bigger political role.
Congo's 2006 election, its first since a 1998-2003 war, was organized under the auspices of the United Nations and funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of donor cash. This time the donor funds amount to merely dozens of millions and Kinshasa-based diplomats have no powers of arbitration as before.
Moreover, Congo's elections have had to compete for media and diplomatic attention with allegations of vote-rigging in Russia and the tangled aftermath of the "Arab Spring" uprisings, not to mention Europe's spiraling sovereign debt crisis.
According to two sources involved, U.N. Security Council members informed heads of the Congo U.N. mission during a video conference that there was no chance of extending the world body's mandate beyond its existing logistical role.
"There has been a gradual political disengagement in Congo," Jean-Marie Guehenno, the U.N.'s former head of peacekeeping who is now a professor at Columbia University, told Reuters.
"There is definitely Congo fatigue after 11 years and billions of dollars. There is no appetite for repeating the Ivory Coast experience," he added.
Concern over Congo's election and the risk of unrest was raised long ago, by local politicians right through to international observers and think tanks such as the International Crisis Group.
But criticism of the polls by foreign governments has been muted, partly because they are billed as being Congolese-run, and partly because of unease over Tshisekedi, seen in most diplomatic circles as stubborn and awkward.
While preparations for the vote were consistently behind schedule, talk of delay to allow better preparation was rejected. Both the United Nations and the United States expressed optimism it would go smoothly right up to polling day.
While millions did manage to vote despite delays, confusion and outbreaks of violence, many others never got the chance or saw their ballots lost in the anarchic counting afterwards, according to observer missions.
In one district of Kabila's southern stronghold of Katanga, turnout was recorded at a mathematics-defying 100.14 percent, with Kabila winning 99.98 percent of the votes.
The election commission website also showed that the results from nearly 2,000 polling stations in the capital Kinshasa, an opposition stronghold, had not been tallied.
Yet some backers of the process were swift with praise. Two days after the vote, African observer missions hailed the fact the elections were managed despite all the challenges.
"This is not the international community's finest hour in Congo," said Congolese blogger Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who also worked on the ground as an election observer in the vote.
"Whether or not diplomats like Tshisekedi, he is an icon to the Congolese ... For a segment of the population, he is the man who best articulates their aspirations and dreams," he added of the disconnect between Tshisekedi's local and foreign image.
Kabila acknowledges "mistakes" in the election process but said his win is not in doubt. He accused the U.S.-based Carter Center observer mission - a rare international voice to openly question the credibility of the vote - of "baseless" criticism.
While none of the international missions have said they have evidence to suggest Tshisekedi may have won, the growing weight of material raising questions about the vote is making it harder to brush over the problems.
BUSINESS AS USUAL?
Couched in diplomatic language, the United Nations on December 12 issued its strongest statement yet, noting "with deep concern" the observer mission reports and "strongly" urging the election commission to investigate them.
While there are reports of mass ballot-stuffing, it is the final compilation of the results at centers in Kinshasa rather than the tallies made at individual polling stations that most observers are concerned about.
The European Union estimates that votes from some 5,000 polling stations, or a possible 1.6 million votes, did not make it into a final tally. But prospects for a recount seem dim as the compilation centers were often chaotic and many ballots appear simply to have been lost.
The Catholic Church had 30,000 observers on voting day, the largest observer network by far. It says it is in a position to know the real winner and has issued a statement saying the provisional election results "do not conform to the truth."
Yet while the church wields influence in this overwhelmingly Christian country, there is little prospect of it having a role in sorting out the current dispute.
For now, foreign governments and bodies are repeating calls for restraint and for the opposition to channel any complaints through the courts and not out onto the street.
Third-placed Vital Kamerhe, who has thrown his weight behind Tshisekedi, has lodged just such a complaint. But there are questions about the independence of Congo's Supreme Court, which even sitting magistrates say is stuffed with pro-Kabila judges -- a charge it has vehemently denied.
As always after a contested vote, there are warnings that whoever emerges as victor will face problems of legitimacy - a major risk in a vast country where, eight years after the war formally ended, there are simmering rebellions across much of the east and frustrations are running high elsewhere.
The George Soros-funded Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), among others, has warned that the lack of credible results risks plunging Congo back into violence that the United Nations and its peacekeepers could not contain.
Yet for now, according to one diplomat, ambassadors in Kinshasa are hoping the tensions do not escalate into violence before a swearing-in ceremony for Kabila scheduled for around December 20 that shows all the signs of being well-attended.
"They will probably all turn up, therefore rubber stamping the results," said the diplomat. "So it is business as usual."
(Editing by Mark John and Mark Heinrich)