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.