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

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.