Yo Soy Nisman: protesters in Buenos Aires. Photo: ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images
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Bullets, pastries and the rise of the right: Mauricio Macri struggles to recover from a mysterious death

The death of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman provides an opportunity for the right.

By late afternoon on 18 February, the storm clouds were gathering and the drizzle had turned into a downpour. As rain battered the streets of Buenos Aires, a 400,000-strong crowd of protesters initiated a furious call-and-response demanding justice for the deceased federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman.

On 19 January, Nisman was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment, killed by a single bullet to the temple. His death was assumed to have been self-inflicted. Nisman had been due next day to begin presenting a case that would implicate the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in obscuring the role played by Iran – an important trading partner – in the most deadly terrorist attack to take place on Argentinian soil: the 1994 bombing of the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association, which killed 85 people.

A number of unusual events took place over the days that followed. Damián Pachter, the journalist who broke the story of Nisman’s death on Twitter, fled the country, saying he was being stalked by the national intelligence services. In mid-February a witness to the case went public with allegations of “irregularities”, including the mishandling of evidence and the dirtying of the crime scene. Investigators had used Nisman’s coffee-maker and eaten medialunas, Argentinian croissants, on the job.

And yet the most serious accusation came on 5 March when Nisman’s ex-wife, Sandra Arroyo Salgado, a federal judge, presented the results of an independent investigation she had conducted with four forensic experts. Her investigation showed an earlier death time and an irregular bullet angle, that there was no gunpowder on Nisman’s hand, and that his body had been moved. “Nisman’s death wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t a suicide,” she told the press. “He was murdered.”

This in turn angered Viviana Fein, the federal prosecutor assigned to the Nisman case. Fein maintained the official position, which would not rule out suicide, and fired back: “If they’re trying to pressure me, it won’t work.”

Meanwhile, the case Nisman had been preparing came to a halt after being handed to another prosecutor, Gerardo Pollicita. The case against Kirchner was thrown out of court by a judge on 26 February, a decision Pollicita is appealing. Some blame the failure on Nisman’s death. A column in Argentina’s most widely read newspaper, Clarín, speculates that Nisman may have known about additional evidence.

The truth about Nisman’s death may remain obscure but the political implications for President Kirchner are clear. The handling of the investigation makes her government look, at best, incompetent. Her own erratic explanations for Nisman’s death, wavering between suicide and the involvement of renegade spies, have only made things worse. Doubts about Kirchner’s reaction have brought her entire leftist-populist agenda into focus, provoking a wholesale shift to the right. This is good news for her chief opponent, the mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri. There are notable parallels between Macri and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson: a powerful figure who has helped transport improve but has been unable – or unwilling – to keep the rise of housing prices in check. Macri is a staunch neoconservative: he cites Ayn Rand as one of his main influences and often lashes out at Argentina’s immigrant communities.

A poll conducted on 4 March showed Macri leading among presidential hopefuls in the lead-up to elections, due to take place in November this year. “This is directly connected to the Nisman case,” says Raúl Aragón, the political consultant who carried out the study. “After Nisman’s death, Kirchner’s popularity dropped sharply, along with the popularity of her closest ally in the race, Daniel Scioli.”

Yet Kirchner still maintains a strong support base. Thousands gathered to hear her three-hour “legacy” speech at the opening of congress on 1 March (her last, as term limits prevent her from running again). She touted her accomplishments, announced a plan to nationalise the country’s rail network and spoke of her regret over Nisman’s death.

In addition, her foothold in the interior may throw the advantage to her allies. “Macri’s support is strong in Buenos Aires and other large cities, but he will have trouble making headway elsewhere in the country,” says Eduardo Blanco, co-editor of a book on the Kirchner government.

Nevertheless the Nisman case continues to be toxic for Kirchner and her allies. “If stories casting doubt on the handling of the Nisman case stay in the news, Macri will most likely continue to lead,” Aragón says. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.