By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algeria must build a national consensus to undertake deep economic reforms and end its dependency on volatile gas and oil revenues, the new leader of the main Islamist opposition party said.
Abderazak Makri, elected last week as the new head of the Islamist MSP party, also told Reuters he will stand in the presidential election in April 2019 if the government does not bring the opposition into its plans for taking the oil-producer country forward.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the veteran leader in power since 1999, has not declared yet whether he will seek a fifth term though the ruling FLN party and the biggest labor union have asked him to run again.
Should the 81-year-old, who is wheelchair-bound following a stroke in 2013, run again this would provide short-term stability in the OPEC oil producer giving the military-backed power brokers time to sort out a smooth transition.
But Makri said the oil producer had no time to lose to agree on economic reforms as Algeria’s model of a state dominated economic dependent on oil and gas revenues no longer worked.
“A government needs full support from political parties, unions and organizations to implement difficult reforms. This is why we need a consensus,” Makri said in an interview.
“If we do not reach a political consensus, all options will be then open. We may participate. We may boycott,” he said.
Islamist parties now play no big role in Algeria where the FLN has dominated since independence from France. The MSP won only 6 percent in the 2017 election and it boycotted the presidential elections in 2014.
Makri said rising domestic gas consumption eating into gas exports showed that the Algeria need to diversify its economy even if oil prices were continuing to pick up.
Oil and gas revenues have halved since 2014, straining a welfare state used to discourage dissent.
Algeria has responded to the economic crisis by reducing imports, a public service hire freeze and postponing some projects to cope with the crash of oil prices.
But the government has maintained subsidies of key products such as milk and powerful elites have resisted opening up the country too much to foreigners.
“The government needs to show very clearly to political parties that it will accept political change,” Makri said.
Many ordinary Algerians prefer stability after the civil war in the 90s when the elite overturned an election which Islamists were poised to win triggering a conflict with them in which about 200,000 people were killed.
Makri was undeterred by the apparent modest support for Islamist parties, pointing to Tunisia where Islamist and secular forces rule together.
“Tunisia is a good sample. When elections are free and fair the winners are always Islamists,” he said. “In Morocco, the Islamists have won, in Tunisia they have won, and they would have won in Algeria if there had been no fraud.”
(Editing by Ulf Laessing and Richard Balmforth)