- - Sunday, April 2, 2017

BUENOS AIRES — Voters in faraway Ecuador on Sunday appeared to have chosen Rafael Correa’s hand-picked successor as their next president, thereby extending Julian Assange’s lease on his legal sanctuary in the country’s London embassy.

Lenin Moreno, a former vice president and the candidate of Mr. Correa’s leftist PAIS bloc, was declared the narrow winner over center-right candidate Guillermo Lasso in Sunday’s presidential runoff, according to results from Ecuador’s National Electoral Council.

With some 94 percent of votes counted, Mr. Moreno scored 51 percent to Mr. Lasso’s 49 percent.

Council President Juan Pablo Pozo declared Mr. Moreno the winner and publicly called on the two men to accept that result.

Ecuador deserves the ethical responsibility from its political actors to recognize the democratic decision made by the people at the ballot box,” Mr. Pozo said.

However, Mr. Lasso and his CREO bloc refused to concede defeat late Sunday night, talking in militaristic terms and saying the people’s will had been denied by electoral fraud.

“We’re on war footing,” Mr. Lasso said. “We will defend the will of the people.”

CREO leader Cesar Monge alleged at a late-night news conference that vote counts for the candidates had been deliberately switched in at least one precinct.

“What we will do in the coming hours is get to the bottom of this,” Mr. Monge said, “so as to know what happened with this election.”

Should that result stand, though, it would mean that Mr. Assange will not be “cordially asked” to leave the diplomatic mission that the WikiLeaks founder has called home since 2012 — as Mr. Lasso had promised.

Should he be expelled from the Ecuadorean Embassy, Mr. Assange would face imminent arrest and extradition to Sweden, where prosecutors for years have wanted to question him over sexual assault accusations.

Mr. Moreno, who won the Feb. 19 multicandidate first round with 39 percent of the vote but fell short of the majority needed to avoid Sunday’s match-up with Mr. Lasso, has frequently reiterated his promise of continued protection but at a recent campaign stop also cautioned the WikiLeaks founder to be a more polite houseguest.

Mr. Assange [can] stay at our embassy as long as he is not given safe passage to move to our country or a country of his choosing,” Mr. Moreno told local reporters while campaigning in the western province of Manabi on Wednesday. “But we will always ask Mr. Assange to be respectful in his statements toward our allies [and] our friends.”

But his intended successor has taken a softer approach, going so far as to predict a “good and refreshing relations” with the Trump administration. “Let’s not forget that the United States is our principal trading partner,” Mr. Moreno said.

The 64-year-old former U.N. disability special envoy, who only recently returned from his post in Geneva, pulled ahead after a chaotic election night. Two early exit polls in the presidential runoff showed contradictory results, with one assuring a 4-point victory for Mr. Moreno and the other giving a 6-point advantage to Mr. Lasso. In the end, though, Mr. Correa’s candidate managed to eke out a triumph.

Regardless of the Moreno win, the vote likely ended the local version of “21st-century socialism” of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez — long propped up by Mr. Correa’s charisma and the oil-driven economic boom during much of his 10-year presidency, said Simon Pachano, a columnist for El Universo daily.

“No matter who wins, the so-called citizens’ revolution is over,” Mr. Pachano told The Washington Times before the result was declared.

First elected in late 2006, the youthful Mr. Correa had quickly moved to push through a new constitution — the 20th in the country’s 180-year history. Adopting a foreign policy at times openly hostile to the U.S., he closely aligned Ecuador with Venezuela and Mr. Chavez’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA.

Ironically, those ties may have made Mr. Lasso a viable candidate as voters kept a close eye on the situation in Venezuela, whose economic and political meltdown was on display last week when the country’s Supreme Court briefly tried to wield power from the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

“Not just what happened in the past few days, but the general situation in Venezuela has had an impact” on Ecuadoreans, who view developments there as “something not desirable” for their country, Mr. Pachano said.

It’s a fear Mr. Lasso hammered in once more as he cast his vote early Sunday in Guayaquil, his hometown and Ecuador’s largest city.

“This is a crucial day for the country; it’s not just any election,” he said. There is “the road of Venezuela or the road of democracy and freedom.”

Mr. Correa, though, did not shy from putting the election in a Latin American context and, as he voted in the early morning hours in Quito, lamented recent center-right victories across the continent.

“We have had a conservative backlash in recent years,” he said with a nod to the ouster of populist governments in Argentina, Brazil and Peru. “The Ecuadorean elections are very important to see if this tendency continues.”

In Mr. Assange’s case, however, the implications of the final tally will be much more immediate. As of Sunday night, just a handful of votes kept him away from finding himself in a Swedish courtroom, where a judge would likely determine an “obvious risk of flight,” local criminal defense lawyer Daniel Roos said.

Worse yet, prosecutors might push for the WikiLeaks founder to be not only jailed until trial, but also for him to be held in isolation — a measure courts may grant to prevent witness- and evidence-tampering, Mr. Roos said.

In that case, “he would have access to his defense lawyer and no one else,” the lawyer noted.

Whatever the course of his local legal troubles, Mr. Assange’s transfer to Sweden would ultimately determine whether his claims that the U.S. is persecuting him might be justified. If a U.S. indictment surfaces, Stockholm in principle would be bound by a bilateral and a European Union extradition treaty with Washington, Mr. Roos said.

But “extradition can be refused if the alleged crimes are deemed to be political,” he said. “The most common grounds for refusal is that the crimes are political.”

Still, judges in the famously liberal country do not typically shy away from unpopular decisions and would determine extradition on the merits, Mr. Roos said.

“I doubt that public pressure would influence the outcome of [that] ruling,” he added.

If Mr. Moreno’s victory is confirmed and he is sworn in as Ecuador’s next president on May 24, though, the leftist candidate’s victory will now give Mr. Assange some clarity about his immediate future.

The same can’t be said for the Ecuadorean people, Mr. Pachano warned, as Mr. Moreno largely remains an enigma — even to his supporters.

“We don’t know who Lenin Moreno is,” Mr. Pachano said. “He speaks in generalities. But he has no fundamental approach.”

For everybody involved, much will then depend on yet another promise: Mr. Correa’s vow to exit the political stage. And that one may not be as rock-solid as his commitment to his Australian houseguest, the columnist said.

“I believe this is the end of the citizens’ revolution,” he said. “But as a caudillo, he may continue to have a political presence.”


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