President Cristina Kirchner opened her final Congressional session on March 1 with a clear message: one of defiance.
For the “vultures” of Wall Street and their “internal supporters” who sought to “shackle the work of the government,” she had a robust answer: “We have definitively taken the Argentinean Republic out of debt.” External debt, she added, is at 9.7 percent of GDP.
Still, there were the “record breaking numbers” of foreign and domestic tourists doing their bit for the national economy. “This summer, tourism literally exploded,” she boasted.
It was perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, given the elephant in the room, which Kirchner only acknowledged well into the third hour of her speech.
“I lament his death like I lament that of any Argentinean, of any human being,” she said, in reference to late prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead on January 19, just days after charging the president of covering up Iran’s role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead.
Muddying the waters
But Kirchner stuck to her guns that both Nisman’s allegations, and suggestions that her administration played a role in his fatal shooting, are an attempt to destabilize the government.
“Ultimately the judicial party has become independent from the constitution and from the laws,” she said.
Subsequent events, however, suggest that the judiciary is neither completely co-opted by Kirchner’s critics nor by the government.
On March 4 Federal Judge Daniel Rafecas released further evidence supporting his ruling that Nisman’s allegations were “alarming” in their lack of coherence. No mere cipher for the government, Rafecas has previously investigated the vice president on corruption charges and is known as a firm ally of Argentina’s Jewish community.
Prosecutor Girardo Pollicita, Nisman’s replacement on the AMIA case, has appealed the decision, and the March 1 release of some 40,000 telephone recordings processed by Nisman — including conversations between Argentinean intelligence officials and their Iranian counterparts — by Infobae adds some weight to Nisman’s claims.
On March 5, Nisman’s ex-wife, judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado, unveiled an independent report arguing that Nisman’s death was not a suicide on the basis of Nisman’s autopsy and photographs of the scene of his death — contradicting the current hypothesis of investigating prosecutor Viviana Fein.
“The prosecutor will never be able to prove Nisman committed suicide because he didn’t — Nisman was murdered,” Arroyo Salgado told press.
The judicial intrigue will only increase as October’s national and presidential elections approach, and they could prove key to shining a light onto the Nisman and AMIA scandals and the current administration’s role, if any, in both of them.
A three-horse race
Throughout 2014, multiple contenders for the presidency have been jockeying for position, including several government ministers. Kirchner is yet to formally name her successor, and the squabbling within her Justicialist party is intensifying. Successive opinion polls, however, suggest that the race is likely to be a closely-fought three-way struggle.
A December 2014 survey by local pollsters Raul Aragón & Associates gave Sergio Massa, a former member of Kirchner’s Justicialist party who broke away in 2009 to form a rival faction sharing the same Peronist ideology, 26.1 percent of the vote. Government front-runner and current governor of Buenos Aires province Daniel Scioli was close behind with 23.6 percent. Businessman Mauricio Macri, the current mayor of Buenos Aires and the leader of the liberal-conservative Propuesta Republicana (PRO), trailed at 21.3 percent, a picture confirmed by another IPSOS poll.
Fast forward three months, during which Nisman’s stunning allegations emerged — to say nothing of the polemic surrounding his sudden death — and the rankings have been shaken up.
Several polls show support ebbing away from Massa and Scioli, the two Peronist candidates, with Macri taking the lead. in March, Raul Aragón similarly placed him at 27.2 percent, ahead of Scioli’s 21.6 percent and Massa’s 21.4 percent.
Change at the top?
Such polls are a blunt and sometimes unreliable instrument. But a general finding is clear: early 2015 has seen Macri emerge as a viable, even likely winner, for the first time, a brief spike in his ratings in September 2014 notwithstanding. This is a significant change for Argentina, where every candidate who has even come close to the presidency since 1989 has displayed strong Peronist leanings.
Macri’s conduct in local government shows him to be anything but the classic small-state politician. He’s taken flak for excessive government spending, and been touched by illegal surveillance investigations. His simultaneous presidency of Buenos Aires soccer club Boca Juniors between 1995 and 2008 — seeing the club win dozens of titles and the epithet of best South American team — has also boosted his credentials in working class districts like the portside neighborhood that gives its name to the team.
Multi-millionaire and veteran politician Macri is the closest thing Argentina has to an outsider candidate with any chance of winning this autumn. The battle for Congress itself will be far more challenging. Still, change at the top, however slight, could help widen the cracks in government impunity and secrecy that Nisman’s explosive allegations created two long months ago.