There is less than a month to go before the second round of Ecuador’s presidential election, the outcome of which could end Julian Assange’s nearly five-year stay in the country’s London embassy.
The April 2 runoff election pits Lenin Moreno, successor to current left-wing President Rafael Correa, against Guillermo Lasso, the right-wing opposition candidate.
The Correa government has hosted Assange in a converted-office apartment in the embassy since June 19, 2012, when he fled bail and requested asylum in Ecuador to avoid extradition to Sweden, which has called for his return in relation to sexual-misconduct allegations.
Welcoming Assange lent Ecuador some of the WikiLeaks founder’s cache and gave Correa the sheen of a defender of press freedom at a time when he was assailing the press at home.
But Assange’s accommodation may come to an end if Lasso assumes Ecuador’s highest office.
“The Ecuadorian people have been paying a cost that we should not have to bear,” Lasso told The Guardian during an interview in February. “We will cordially ask Señor Assange to leave within 30 days of assuming a mandate.”
Lasso was behind Moreno by several points when he made his initial comments about evicting Assange from the embassy, which came about 10 days before the first round of voting on February 19 (Lasso and another conservative candidate, Cynthia Viteria, both told AFP they would end Assange’s asylum if they won).
In the days after that poll was taken, Lasso also qualified his stance on Assange.
“We will ask Mr. Assange, very politely, to leave our embassy, in absolute compliance with international conventions and protocols,” he told the Miami Herald by email earlier this month. But, he said, “we vow to take all steps necessary so that another embassy will take him in and protect his rights.”
Lasso also noted that Assange said he would agree to US extradition if President Barack Obama gave Chelsea Manning — the former US soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of cables to WikiLeaks in 2010 and was subsequently sentenced to 35 years in a US prison — clemency.
Prior to leaving office, Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, granting her release on May 17.
Assange has said that commutation is not a pardon and remains in the embassy (Manning is a transgender woman, and in this election Ecuador allowed people to vote according to their chosen gender for the first time).
As polarizing a figure as Assange has been, his presence in Ecuador’s embassy is just one of many issues that could influence voters when they head to the polls on April 2.
The Odebrecht graft scandal — related to millions of dollars paid out in bribes by a Brazilian multinational firm of the same name — has implicated officials from around the region.
Several current and former officials at Petroecuador, the country’s state-run oil firm, are wanted on bribery and money-laundering charges in relation to Odebrecht contracts. When the offenses in question allegedly took place, current Vice President Jorge Glas, who is Moreno’s running mate, was in charge of Petroecuador.
For his part, Lasso, a former banker — an unpopular profession in Ecuador — was a presidential-cabinet member during a financial meltdown in the late 1990s that ruined savings and led many to leave the country, though he has dismissed efforts to tie him to that calamity.
While Correa has been praised for the economic boom Ecuador experienced during his 10 years in office, the country faces a uncertain outlook. The country’s economy shrank 1.7% in 2016 — a contraction brought about by the ongoing slump in oil prices.
Many in the country have grown tired of Correa and worry his grip on power has abetted corruption.
Correa’s government was able to stave off the deeper oil-related economic crises that have afflicted other countries in the region — in part by taking on large amounts of debt that forestalled cuts to popular social programs and layoffs of public-sector workers.
The next president may have to pursue unpopular measures, like tax hikes or budget cuts, that would alienate Ecuadorians in response to that mounting debt.
In that environment, Moreno — whose predecessor cut Assange’s internet access in the weeks before the US presidential election over WikiLeaks’ distribution of Hillary Clinton’s staffers’ emails — may adopt a more hostile stance toward the WikiLeaks founder’s presence.
Asked about Assange’s possible impact on the first round of presidential voting — which Moreno won 39% to Lasso’s 28% but fell just short of the 40% margin needed to win outright — Lasso said little.
“We have no indication, or comment, about that,” he told the Miami Herald.