Alberto Nisman and Argentina’s Presidential Elections

On Sunday, January 18, Argentine federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found shot dead in his Buenos Aires apartment. His death came just hours before he was scheduled to deliver testimony before a congressional commission on new evidence he allegedly uncovered linking top Argentine officials to a series of covert negotiations with Iran in recent years.

In response, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s administration dissolved the country’s intelligence services on January 27, promising to found a new federal intelligence agency. It remains to be seen how this will play out—and if it could lead to further allegations against the Argentine government.

The circumstances of his death remain suspect. Whatever the case, Nisman’s death has upended the political environment in the country—all as presidential elections approach this fall.

So what could it mean for Argentina?

Q1: What was the nature of Alberto Nisman’s investigation?

A1: In 1994, 85 people were killed and hundreds more were injured in a bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires—the largest terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere until 9/11. The next few years of investigations uncovered very little, plagued by allegations of evidence suppression and bribery, leading to Alberto Nisman’s appointment to head the case in 2004.

Two years later, Nisman brought formal charges alleging that the government of Iran worked with Hezbollah to direct and carry out the attack, implicating seven Iranian governmental officials—including former Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi— and one Lebanese-born member of Hezbollah. And in 2007, Interpol issued arrest warrants for nine people in connection with the attack, including eight Iranians.

In 2013, President Kirchner attempted a joint Argentine-Iranian inquiry into the attack, though ultimately the judiciary ended the inquiry, ruling it unconstitutional.
Then, earlier this year, Nisman cast doubt on what happened next.

According to a 300-word summary of his findings released prior to his death, Nisman had allegedly uncovered evidence that top Argentine officials, including President Kirchner and Foreign Minister Timerman, conducted covert negotiations with Tehran even after the court ordered the end of that process. And according to Nisman, the two governments aimed to secure a mutually advantageous agreement: removal of arrest warrants from those Iranian officials under suspicion in exchange for a trade deal.

Q2: What could Nisman’s death mean for Argentina this year?

A2: In many ways, the Nisman controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time for Argentina.

Coming away from 2014, the beleaguered Argentine economy has continued to flounder following years of economic troubles. Argentina’s central bank reserves are rapidly dwindling, down from US$52 billion in June 2011 to US$30 billion in December 2014. Even with a recent US$11 billion loan from China, Argentine officials have been unable to offset sky-high inflation, which some estimate as high as 40 percent. Even if that figure is disputed, it is well above the government estimates that led the International Monetary Fund to officially censure Buenos Aires.

With an economic crisis long looming on the horizon, many hoped that Argentina would use the New Year as a chance to turn the page and thrust the October 2015 presidential elections into the spotlight. This all changed with the death of Nisman.

Nisman’s death has served to redirect the public discourse back toward the tenuous economic and political environment.

Q3: What implications could the scandal have for this year’s presidential elections?

A3: At this point, the election field has narrowed to three frontrunners—Daniel Scioli (Peronist Party; governor of Buenos Aires province), Sergio Massa (Justicialist branch of the Peronist Party; mayor of Tigre), and Mauricio Macri (Republican Proposal, a center-right party; mayor of Buenos Aires)—each of whom is viewed as holding a more politically moderate and market-friendly economic outlook than the current administration. But so far, the candidates have been hesitant to criticize the government’s economic record, keeping their proposals broadly focused on Argentina’s future.

This all could change in coming months. With the toxic political climate as a backdrop, economic issues to date unaddressed by the three candidates could increasingly come into play. In particular, reducing inflation and reorienting the Argentine economy to embrace a more internationalist perspective could take on new weight as the candidates react to negativity among the Argentine public and further develop their platforms.

Beyond economic questions, the three candidates likely have little choice but to turn their attention to the elephant in the room: the current situation. Protesters bearing signs with the slogan “Yo soy Nisman” are an increasingly common sight in demonstrations in Buenos Aires. Trust in the government is at a historic low: more than half of the Argentine public disapproves of the government, while over 80 percent believe Nisman’s allegations to be credible.

In other words, public-government tensions have come to a head—and the candidates are finding it increasingly difficult to sidestep the issue.

Ultimately, this issue could have real power in determining electoral outcomes. In the immediate aftermath of Nisman’s death, it seems that Macri is best positioned to ride out the scandal given his position outside the current administration’s party. If Massa and Scioli don’t make a deliberate effort to distance themselves from the administration and from the Nisman controversy, they could face difficulties this fall.

Conclusion: With January coming quickly to a close and all eyes on the unraveling mystery surrounding the death of Alberto Nisman, one thing is clear: the political scene in Argentina promises to be a turbulent one in coming months. Already, the controversy has shown signs of exacerbating deep seated mistrust of the government and furthering economic misgivings on the part of Argentine citizens.

Whatever happens, the political tone in Argentina is one of distrust. The upcoming presidential election has the potential to serve as a forum for dialogue not only on government accountability and oversight but also national unity. Nisman’s death could serve as the catalyst for this political transformation—or it could make an already difficult situation even worse.

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Conor Lane, intern scholar, and Jillian Rafferty, program coordinator and research assistant, both with the Americas Program, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Carl Meacham