The National Institute for Statistics and Census (INDEC, its Spanish acronym) announced this morning that it would postpone the publication of April’s inflation figures, originally scheduled for Friday May 12, to Monday 15 because of provincial elections that weekend.
According to high-level official INDEC sources, the decision was made after they realized that the publication calendar coincided with the veda electoral or “pre-election silence” — a law that bans campaign events and the publication of polls 48 hours before an election. Citizens of five provinces (La Pampa, San Juan, Salta, Tucumán and Tierra del Fuego) have gubernatorial elections on Sunday 14.
However, hours after the INDEC published the new calendar on its website and the change was widely reported in Argentine media —with some social media backlash— the institution backtracked.
The announcement made alarm bells ring because official statistics, particularly inflation figures, are a sensitive issue in Argentina. From January 2007 to December 2015, then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration took over the INDEC in a maneuver spearheaded by then-Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno. Figures published by the agency at the time were highly contested and internationally questioned.
For example, according to the INDEC, inflation in 2014 was 23.9% but consulting firm Eco Go measured a 31.4% price hike for that year.
The INDEC takeover had judicial consequences. In 2014, a group of hedge funds accused Argentina of manipulating statistics in a US$1.46 billion lawsuit filed at London’s High Court. Their lawyer said economic statistics were “the subject of political direction” in the country under Kirchner.
The fight to make the INDEC’s figures reliable again was one of Mauricio Macri’s flagship proposals in the 2015 elections, which he won. His INDEC administration, led by Jorge Todesca, was even recognized by current President Alberto Fernández.
Today’s announcement came as a surprise, given that as recently as April 14, the INDEC published March’s inflation figures —which was 7.7%, the highest in twenty years— two days before elections were held in Río Negro and Neuquén.
“The April 14 publication was a warning sign that we published information that could have a positive or negative impact on the electoral process,” a high-level source in the INDEC told the Herald. “That is why we changed the publication of every report that, until November, is in pre-election silence moments.”
The INDEC had also announced it would move the publication of three other types of statistical reports that coincide with national and provincial elections scheduled to take place in June, October and November.
However, the “pre-election silence” law does not ban the publishing of official statistics before an election.
Raúl Llaneza, Deputy General Secretary of the State Workers Association (ATE in Spanish) and representative of the INDEC’s union said the government’s decision was “terrible” because it presents the publication of official statistics as equal to a political act.
“It is worrying, as it reveals the dependence on the political power of the day and is detrimental to the trust that society once again had in our organization and our credibility,” Llaneza told the Herald.
“It generates a feeling of uncertainty,” he said. “It’s too much. It’s not in the law.”
According to the sources, the INDEC made the decision and later notified Economy Minister Sergio Massa via Whatsapp.
“We wanted to decouple statistics from the electoral process,” they said.
However, that is not how the move was generally interpreted. City mayor and opposition presidential candidate Horacio Rodríguez Larreta lambasted the government for the decision.
“April’s inflation was dramatic. The national government has all the responsibility. ” he tweeted. “They may hide it, camouflage it, or conceal it as they have done with so many other problems. But never again will bad governments be able to deceive Argentines. We are going to change this too.”
In the end, the INDEC backed down in the evening.
“We consider it good practice not to release statistical information in the middle of the pre-election silence but, given the controversy that was caused, the four dates will remain in their originally established schedule,” INDEC Director Marco Lavagna said in a statement.