KINSHASA (Reuters) - Personal ambition and dissent within Democratic Republic of Congo's largest opposition party could offer President Joseph Kabila a chance to hang onto power when his term ends, threatening the nation's first peaceful transition.
Splits within the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the oldest and traditionally most vociferous opposition party, are marking a turbulent run up to elections due in 2016, when Kabila is meant to step aside after two elected terms.
Following decades of conflict and misrule, Congo is trying to stamp out remaining pockets of rebellion and build on relative stability that has helped it to lure investors and rival Zambia as Africa's top copper producer.
However, violent protests in January over whether Kabila might try to stay on showed the potential for trouble in the giant nation, whose past bouts of conflict have sucked in nations across central Africa.
Since its foundation in 1982, the UDPS has stood up first to long-time ruler Mobutu Sese Seko and then Laurent Kabila, who ousted him in 1997 and was the current president's father.
However, the man who has led the party from the outset, Etienne Tshisekedi, is now 82 and receiving medical treatment abroad. During this absence, his son Felix has divided the party by accepting an offer of dialogue from Kabila that some UDPS members and most other opposition parties have rejected as a tactic to delay the presidential vote.
Another African giant, Nigeria marked its first democratic transition of power with the inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari last Friday. But Congo has yet to achieve such a handover since independence from Belgium in 1960 and its record of violence is grim. One study estimated that 5.4 million people died in the decade to 2008 alone from a range of conflicts plus related disease and malnutrition.
Kabila's spokesman has said the president intends to respect the constitution. But Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father in 2001 and won elections in 2006 and 2011, has so far refused to comment on his political future after next year.
Jean Omasombo, a Congo expert at the Royal Central Africa Museum in Belgium, said nominating Felix Tshisekedi to a high post could help Kabila to soften public opposition if he tries to stay in office. "Kabila would like to put in place a government that can help him draw closer to public opinion while trying to keep himself in power," Omasombo said.
Excuses for delaying the election could include a lack of funding for the vote, a stalled decentralization process and violence that persists near Congo's eastern border, but events elsewhere in Africa show they would involve risk.
In Burkina Faso, an attempt to change the constitution provoked a revolution last year while Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza has faced protests and a coup attempt over his own push for a third term.
Felix Tshisekedi said talks - proposed by a Kabila envoy in May - are aimed at ensuring a series of local, regional and national elections are well organized. Opposition leaders have repeatedly dismissed the timetable as unrealistic.
He rejects suggestions that he wants to join Kabila's government. "It is not a question for us of going to discuss a government of national unity or transition. No, no, three times no," he told Reuters in a sparsely furnished office at his home in Limete, a Kinshasa district and opposition stronghold.
Many party stalwarts still accuse Felix and his mother, Marthe, of a power grab while the state of his father, nicknamed "the Sphinx", remains unclear outside the family.
Francois Tshipamba Mpuila, a founder of the UDPS, criticized the Tshisekedi family from Belgium, where he leads the party’s national federation. "For them, the party ... is a private and exclusive property of their biological family," he wrote, accusing family members of striking a deal with Kabila.
Albert Moleka, Etienne Tshisekedi's former chief of staff and spokesman, left the party this year after accusing family members of stopping him seeing his ex-boss.
Moleka also suspects Tshisekedi Senior’s signatures on official statements have been doctored. "The mother always wanted her son to become a minister," he said.
Etienne - seldom seen without his flat cap before his treatment - still commands authority in the party for his long career in opposition including to Mobutu, when he earned the Sphinx nickname for not speaking much but causing a lot of trouble when he did.
Last month he endorsed the idea of talks in a statement issued from Belgium, and Felix has dismissed talk of schisms as posturing by those looking to replace his father.
Felix says his father suffers from diabetes and hypertension, but insists he will return home to run in the election next year, despite Moleka's assertions that the illness is more serious and will prevent this.
Party supporters have never accepted Etienne's defeat by Kabila in 2011, an election that European Union observers deemed "not credible" due to fraud.
Felix Tshisekedi said international mediation was needed to ensure Kabila sticks to any promises secured in the dialogue.
Much of the UDPS rank and file, whose admiration for the elder Tshisekedi is matched only by their hatred of Kabila, dislike the conciliatory stance towards the president.
Some senior party members have even begun informal talks on a new leadership, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. Others, though, resort to hyperbole in describing their hopes for a triumphal return of the Sphinx.
"Without him, it’ll be the death of all the Congolese people," said Francois Nkunza, a lawyer and UDPS member.
Editing by David Lewis and David Stamp