“No one can shut me up, […] no power can shut me up,” she bristled.
On January 30, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner appeared on national television and rebuked her critics. The incident exemplifies what her presidency has become: a dysfunctional system rapidly losing popularity. Elected in 2007, and re-elected in 2011 for a four year term expiring in December 2015, Fernández inherited the leftist political dynasty started by her late husband Néstor Kirchner, which has been in power since 2003. Kirchner gained popularity during a period of economic expansion, which resulted from skyrocketing commodity prices.
While in office, Fernández attempted to continue her husband’s political philosophy, known as Kirchnerismo. In the last year, however, Argentina’s recession and forecasted 40% inflation rate show the deterioration of Kirchnerismo. Fernández’s approval ratings have plummeted. In response to mounting criticism as economic conditions worsen, she has taken an authoritarian stance. She places loyalty over debate, and systematically lies about her administration’s shortcomings.
Everyone knew that the President’s final months in the Casa Rosada presidential palace were going to be challenging, but few were predicting a scandal.
On January 18th, the Fernández administration veered into a tailspin. After ten years of investigation, public prosecutor Alberto Nisman was ready to accuse the President of covering up Iran’s alleged involvement in Argentina’s bloodiest terrorist attack: a 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and injured hundreds of others. Nisman charged that the government was motivated by a bilateral trade agreement to exchange Argentine grain for Iranian oil. Hours before he was due to present evidence to the Argentine National Congress on Monday, January 19, Nisman was found dead in his apartment, with a single shot to the head. Political analyst Rosendo Fraga says this was “the worst crisis in almost 12 years of Kirchnerism.”
The mystery surrounding the case is central to the crisis. The media immediately began debating whether Nisman’s death was homicide or suicide, and conspiracy theories gained momentum. Hours after the news broke, the President suggested on Twitter that Nisman’s death was a suicide. A few days later, she insinuated in a Facebook post that it was murder, blaming rogue spies in the country’s intelligence services for attempting to undermine her government.
Fernández’s claims are not entirely implausible: Argentines are suspicious of their intelligence agencies, which have undergone little reform since the end of the military dictatorship in 1983.
However, Fernández’s past actions also call her credibility into question. The administration is dissembling about internal problems, such as corruption and the inflation rate. Her populist rhetoric has not warded off suspicions. Although there is no evidence to accuse Fernandez of orchestrating Nisman’s death, many Argentines are wary of government involvement, a poll by Carlos Fara & Associados found. The government seems nervous, accusing enemies, making premature allegations, and publicly contradicting itself. Their unease suggests that the government might not be as prepared to deal with this crisis, and may perhaps, have something to hide.
In the midst of falling approval ratings, the administration is struggling to regain public confidence. After Nisman’s death, Fernandez announced a long-due overhaul of the intelligence services, with the creation of the Federal Information Agency (AFI). However, the reforms do not represent any significant change. For example, wiretapping rights will be transferred to the Attorney General’s office, which is known to be deferential to the president. Thus, the executive will be able to exercise greater control over intelligence; over the past decade, it has been using intelligence to intimidate the judiciary and influence its decisions.
With the separate cases of Nisman’s death and the allegations of the Iran cover-up developing simultaneously, the justice system now has the spotlight, and is where the core of the crisis is set to continue. However, Ms. Fernández’s past attempts to control justice when it comes into conflict with her political interests indicates that this time, it won’t be any different. Amid the acid political bickering surrounding the case, Argentines have little hope that it will be solved. Maia Eliscovich Sigal, an Argentine student at Yale University, and vice president of the Yale College Council, explains that impunity is regarded as commonplace in Argentina. “I don’t think they are going to find whom to blame, and popular distrust towards the government, which already exists, is only going to increase”, she said.
Domingo Cavallo, Argentina’s former Minister of Economy and a Senior Fellow of the Jackson Institute at Yale, shares this opinion. “In the past twelve years, Kirchnerismo has revived the central characteristic of the first Peronist government (1946-1955), by Juan Perón, of subordinating the judiciary, and make it follow the desires of the executive power,” he told The Politic. “Cristina’s government has operated in a way which is destructive to the republican institutions, and this deterioration manifests itself in an extreme form with Nisman’s death”.
The mysterious case brings to light the institutional disabilities of a flawed democracy, especially between the executive and judiciary powers. The latter, although slow and inefficient, has maintained its independence, which has prevented Argentina from becoming a pseudo dictatorship, as was the case in Venezuela. Cavallo recognizes this importance: “Nowadays, the main opposition to the government does not come from oppositionist parties, which are divided and until now have failed to join forces to oppose Kirchernismo, but indeed from judges and prosecutors who strongly believe in the correct division of power, and in their duty to denounce the administrative abuses of Cristina’s government. This has caused a big divide in the judiciary between those who share this commitment and those who defer to the ruling party.”
In 2013, for example, Ms. Fernández attempted to “democratize” Argentina’s legal system, by proposing a judicial reform that would allow representatives to the Magistrate’s Council, which is in charge of appointing judges, to be elected by popular vote. In reality, this would have put it under the control of the ruling party. Approved in Congress, the reforms were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and not implemented. Following Nisman’s death, the government adopted a different strategy, but with similar aims: in an attempt to leave a ruling party-friendly Supreme Court by the end of her administration, Cristina proposes the appointment of a publicly Kirchnerist jurist for a vacant spot, and puts pressure on the resignation of Carlos Fayt, the Court’s longest serving judge. Albeit being hard to do, this would ensure a ruling party majority, and ultimately her protection from corruption charges and the AMIA cover-up itself after she loses immunity and becomes exposed legally exposed.
With Nisman’s death, this long stretching institutional conflict has assumed much greater proportions: it is the first time that federal prosecutors, colleagues to Nisman, call for protest, and were joined by unsatisfied citizens. The “marcha del 18F”, an organized “silent march” in Buenos Aires on February 18th, marking one month since the prosecutor’s death, reflects the current domestic mood. With over 400,000 protesters attending, it was, simultaneously, a manifestation of prosecutor’s frustrations over Cristina’s attempts to politically control judges, public prosecutors’ concerns over the inability of the state to protect them in carrying out their duty, and a mix of civilian outrage at Nisman’s death and general dissatisfaction with the Kirchner administration.
“Civic engagement in Argentina has always been strong, but there are very few instances when everyone goes out to the streets to protest. This has been one of those times,” said Eliscovich Sigal, describing the atmosphere in Buenos Aires, her hometown. In a context of growing public opposition to the government and presidential elections only months away, however, Nisman’s death and the 18F can potentially be more than just a symbol of discontent over Argentina’s inadequacies It could mark the demise of Kirchnerismo as another personality-centered cycle in Argentine politics.
But what lies ahead is still uncertain. The opposition is still fragmented, and the possible outcomes are significantly complex, a complexity compounded by the fact that Kirchnerismo is but a wing of the massive Justicialista (Peronista) Party. The opposition’s two main candidates appear to be Sergio Massa, for the Renewal Front, an anti-Kirchnerist faction of the Justicialista Party, and Mauricio Macri, the center-right candidate representing the small Republican Proposal party. In the most recent poll following Nisman’s death, both already lead over Daniel Scioli, the Kirchnerist candidate. However, many suggest that Cristina’s plans to return in 2019 surprisingly involve the center-right Macri winning this year’s elections, and her party retaining a majority in Congress, under her leadership, which will most likely be the case if a unification of the oppositionist candidates does not occur.
Cavallo summarizes this: “If Cristina reaches the end of her administration with a non-explosive economic situation, with this scenario she will be able to preserve Kirchnerismo’s main political asset: her populist cult of personality and interpretation of the Kirchner years which is popularly called the Relato Kirchnerista (Spanish: Kirchnerist Discourse). With Macri winning, the necessity to implement harsh economic measures to reverse the current stagflation, coupled with the legislative inertia of a Kirchnerist majority in Congress, will quickly erode his leadership, and create a sense of nostalgia of Cristina’s government, especially in the poorer sectors of the population, paving the way for her return.”
With a Justicialist victory by Massa or Scioli, however, it will be difficult for Cristina to retain her desired leftist leadership in Congress, as party congressmen will shift their support to the new president. It indeed seems clear that for a sustainable oppositionist victory – one that will have the necessary power to address the serious economic and social issues that plague the country, neutralize the wearing effect of a Kirchnerist majority in Congress, and thus maintain public support – a single-candidacy alliance before the primaries in August are necessary. This has not yet happened – Massa has supported the initiative, but Macri and his party still reject it. What the Nisman crisis and the 18F march have the potential to do is to accelerate this unification process, but this is yet to be seen.
The judicial and political consequences of Alberto Nisman’s death therefore remain as mysterious and undefined as the incident itself. Amidst speculation, analysis, and wishful thinking, only the next few months will tell if January 18th, 2015 will be merely a footnote, or the beginning of the final chapter to the Relato Kirchnerista.