- - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

His name isn’t on the ballot, but Julian Assange’s fate may be in the hands of voters in a country an ocean away from his legal sanctuary in the Ecuadorean Embassy in the heart of one of London’s ritziest neighborhoods.

When voters in Ecuador cast their ballots in the presidential runoff next month, they will choose between two radically different candidates vying to lead their nation of 16 million — and determine the fate of the WikiLeaks founder, a middle-aged Australian who has never lived a day in the South American country.

Opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso has said that, if elected, he would “cordially ask” Mr. Assange to leave the mission “within 30 days,” citing the costs of putting him up.

Mr. Assange has lived at Ecuador’s London embassy since 2012 to evade extradition to Sweden

He contends that Swedish sexual assault charges against him are a pretext for a possible U.S. prosecution over WikiLeaks’ 2010 release of thousands of classified diplomatic cables — a line of argument that resonated with Ecuador’s outgoing populist President Rafael Correa, who offered the 45-year-old hacker to stay at the embassy indefinitely.

Given how the Assange saga is linked to the “anti-imperialist” foreign policy of Mr. Correa — an ally and admirer of Venezuela’s late socialist leader Hugo Chavez — it’s a promise his handpicked successor, former Vice President Lenin Moreno, is bound to keep if he beats Mr. Lasso in the April 2 runoff election.

Mr. Moreno handily won the first round of voting with 39 percent of the vote in a multicandidate field but fell just short of the margin he needed to avoid a runoff against the conservative Mr. Lasso, who finished second with 28 percent. But the right-wing parties have been coalescing around Mr. Lasso, and the most recent poll had some bad news for Mr. Moreno — and Mr. Assange.

The Cedatos polling firm, surveying nearly 3,000 voters last week, now gives Mr. Lasso a 52 percent to 48 percent lead.

Boxed in

Mr. Assange’s status, and the diplomatic and economic pressure Ecuador has faced as his protector, have not been major issues in the presidential campaign, said political scientist Santiago Basabe of the Latin American Institute of Social Sciences in Quito. But ordinary voters have taken note that Mr. Moreno’s comments on Mr. Assange — and on many of Mr. Correa’s signature policies — have largely been timid and deferential, with little promise of change from the status quo in Quito.

“They are issues Moreno can’t touch,” said Mr. Basabe, noting that the term-limited Mr. Correa remained the true power center within the leftist Proud and Sovereign Fatherland Alliance. “Ten years [in government] goes to show that Correa is interested in staying politically active in the short and medium terms,” he said.

That caricature of a boxed-in placeholder has haunted Mr. Moreno — a 63-year-old former U.N. disability special envoy who only recently returned from his post in Geneva — and the candidate could not hide his irritation at a Feb. 21 campaign event, according to El Universo, Ecuador’s leading newspaper based in Guayaquil.

“Very clearly, who will govern is I. Correa has told me he would go to Belgium to rest with his family,” Mr. Moreno said about the 53-year-old incumbent, who is married to a Belgian native. “Who will govern is I,” he reiterated.

Even if voters believe he is in charge, though, the runoff presents a special conundrum for Mr. Moreno because — unlike the Feb. 19 first round — it is likely to turn into a referendum on Mr. Correa’s “citizen revolution” of socialist policies, said Simon Pachano, an El Universo columnist.

“The campaign is shaping up as [a choice between] the continuation of this process or a radical change,” Mr. Pachano told The Washington Times. “It’s inevitable that we have this confrontation.”

Mr. Moreno is also trying to buck a larger trend across the continent, as long-serving leftist governments in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Peru have given way to more conservative leaders in recent years.

Mr. Lasso seems to have quickly warmed to that scenario: The 61-year-old founder of the center-right CREO Movement is already warning voters that Ecuador could face a social meltdown similar to the one Venezuela is seeing under Mr. Chavez’s embattled successor, Nicolas Maduro, if Mr. Correa and his party hold on to power.

“Mr. Lenin Moreno is Rafael Correa’s Nicolas Maduro, a person without leadership, without personality, who’s been put there by his boss,” he told CNN en Espanol last week.

Policy and personality

To Mr. Pachano, that comparison may work on the campaign trail — but some of the parallels have been overstated, and it is too soon to write off the ruling coalition’s chances. Mr. Maduro has brought his country to the brink of crisis with a confrontational style and a mismanagement of the economy that has led to deep social unrest in Venezuela.

“The situation in Ecuador is very different from the one in Venezuela, and Lenin Moreno is very different from Nicolas Maduro,” the columnist said. “Lenin Moreno will try to have a less belligerent government than that of Rafael Correa, and consequently much less belligerent than that of Nicolas Maduro.”

Mr. Basabe, on the other hand, draws a distinction between policy and personality.

“Mr. Moreno has more government abilities, by far, than Mr. Maduro,” he said. “[But] in the economic sphere, Venezuela’s difficulties could reach [Ecuador] in some manner if the [current] economic model continues.”

As the polls suggest, the April 2 runoff will likely turn out to be an extraordinarily tight race. Mr. Lasso has already pocketed the endorsement of third-place finisher Cynthia Viteri — who received 16 percent of the vote in the first round — and he and Mr. Moreno are now wooing the supporters of candidates who on Feb. 19 scored in the single digits.

While both sides have at times cast doubts on the integrity of the National Electoral Council, no one in Ecuador is worried that Mr. Assange might try to tip the scales, Mr. Pachano said, even though WikiLeaks published thousands of stolen Democratic National Committee emails ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

Maybe the Australian hacker is hoping that, in the worst-case scenario, he could count on the Ecuadorean legal system to preserve his unusual sanctuary. But if it comes to that, much will depend on whether he can truly be considered a refugee — a tricky question, said Ryan Scoville, who teaches international law at Marquette University.

In the end, the new leaders in Quito might simply take the view that in a Swedish — or even American — courtroom, Mr. Assange would have nothing to fear but a fair trial.

“Their duty would be limited to not send him back to his would-be persecutors,” Mr. Scoville said. “[But] you can lose the [refugee] status if the actual basis for your fear of persecution goes away.”

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