Depending on who wins Ecuador’s presidential runoff in April, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may have to find a new home. He has been living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since 2012, when he was granted asylum.
Outgoing leftist President Rafael Correa’s handpicked successor, Lenin Moreno, just missed the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff in the Feb. 19 vote. The election now goes to a runoff on April 2.
Some opinion polls show former banker and right-wing opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso as winning the runoff — a political shift that would mean the end to one of South America’s remaining leftist governments.
Lasso told news organizations that if he became president, he would ask Assange to leave the embassy because harboring him was too expensive. Assange is wanted in Sweden over sexual assault allegations.
“Ecuador had no business spending a single cent protecting someone who definitely leaked confidential information,” Lasso said. “I will take on the responsibility of inviting Mr. Assange to leave the Ecuadorean embassy at the latest 30 days after the start of our government.”
Lasso also has promised to end Correa’s self declared “21st century socialist revolution,” which included doubling social spending during the country’s oil boom while tightening his hold on the opposition, press and judicial system.
Correa has rejected Lasso’s attacks as “the trickery of the right and the corrupt press.”
As tallies from the first round of voting trickled in, showing Moreno in the lead, Lasso supporters filled the streets in the capital, Quito, alleging voter fraud.
Two days later, when officials announced Moreno had failed to secure 40 percent of the vote, the opposition protests turned into celebrations as they shouted, “Fuera Correa, fuera,” or “Out Correa, out.”
Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program, said it’s no surprise that Assange, who has leveraged Correa’s “confrontational style” and combative relationship with the U.S. to stay in Ecuador’s London embassy, is caught up in the struggle for the country’s political future.
“The continuation of this kind of regime in power is the only thing that’s keeping him there,” Arnson said. Assange is also wanted in the U.S., where he and WikiLeaks are the subject of an investigation for publishing troves of classified U.S. cables.
“Welcome to the club of those persecuted,” Correa told Assange upon his arrival to Ecuador’s London embassy in 2012. Correa dismissed Lasso’s intention to remove Assange as “the appeasement of [Ecuador’s] right-wing parties to win points with the U.S.”
If Lasso were able to remove Assange, and he was extradited to Sweden, the situation becomes more complicated. U.S. President Donald Trump has sent mixed signals regarding his policy toward publishing classified information. He’s both denounced news organizations for publishing leaked information and praised WikiLeaks for releasing hacked Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 presidential campaign.
President Trump told supporters, “I love WikiLeaks,” during a campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in October. Mr. Trump also has tested relations with Sweden when he alleged the country’s immigrants caused to an uptick in crime. Sweden roundly denounced his comments.
The political ascension of Lasso, who lost to Correa in 2013, represents growing “fatigue with Correa’s combative style of politics,” of which Assange is an example, Arnson said. In 2015, Correa challenged an opposition lawmaker, who had criticized him, to a fist fight. Lasso, more of a “pragmatist” than Correa, said Arnson, would likely seek to mend ties with the U.S., its largest trade partner.
Carlos de la Torre, a University of Kentucky professor and author of “Populist Seduction in Latin America”, said Correa maintains strong support from his populist base. After coming to power as a political outsider promising upheaval against corrupt, establishment elites, he is credited for helping lift 1.5 million people from poverty in his first two terms. And he still calls his working class supporters “comrades.”
But de la Torre said as open dissent continues, it emboldens Correa’s critics.
“People used to preface their protests with phrases like: ‘With all due respect Mr. Correa I don’t think that’s right,’” de la Torre said. “Now protesters openly call him ‘incompetent’ and other names in as they march in the streets.”
Correa, 53, was constitutionally barred from running in this election, but he could run again in the 2021 election after Congress approved indefinite re-election for presidents last year.
Moreno was Correa’s vice president from 2007 to 2013 and is considered less confrontational than the outgoing president.