Thus far, much of the coverage of Julian Assange’s successful political asylum application to Ecuador has focused on the international legal and diplomatic aspects and implications of the case. In fact, domestic Ecuadorian politics have played a vital role in the decision-making process for the administration of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.
The backdrop to the Assange case has been the upcoming presidential election in Ecuador, slated to be held just six months from now in February 2013. President Correa, who was first elected in 2007, will be seeking a second term under Ecuador’s 2008 constitution.
Opinion polls published in the Ecuadorian media in 2012 have shown Correa with a commanding lead over his prospective opponents, largely because there is no consensus challenger. Polling from CMS in March showed Correa with just under 49% of the vote, more than 40 points ahead of the five included challengers, who polled between 1% and 9% each. Thiry percent of voters, however, said that they had not chosen a candidate to support. More recent polling has shown the emergence of Guillermo Lasso as the closest prospective candidate with 17% of the vote, while undecided voters fell to 17%. Correa held fast with 50% of the vote.
With a split field, Correa is practically guaranteed a win. Ecuadorian electoral law does not require the winning candidate to garner a majority of the popular vote; if a candidate receives at least 40% of the vote and is at least 10 points ahead of the next finisher, he or she wins in the first round.
Election observers, including the Correa campaign, view Guillermo Lasso as the candidate most capable of forcing a runoff and, indeed, possibly winning the election. Despite being the former head of a major bank (the Bank of Guayaquil) and an economic adviser to former President Lucio Gutierrez, Lasso began the campaign unknown to most voters (he pulled just 4.6% in the March 2012 poll). However, Lasso and his team have launched aggressive efforts to promote him in television and print media. Thus far, with a focus on domestic issues and image cultivation, Lasso in particular has been able to start to close the gap with Correa, hoping to push out the other prospective opposition candidates and turn the contest into a two-horse race.
This brings us back to the Julian Assange case, which has been used to great political effect by President Correa to redirect the nation’s focus from the presidential campaign to a riveting legal and diplomatic affair of international significance. Each day that Assange and the asylum case dominates the airwaves is one fewer day for Lasso to introduce himself to voters and work to find a consensus platform for the opposition.
The forceful anti-imperialist and anti-colonial rhetoric of Correa and Foreign Minister Patiño in the context of the UK’s threat to remove diplomatic protections from the Ecuador Embassy in London have been couched in nationalistic terms for the Ecuadorian population. Essentially, Correa has wrapped himself in the flag – in a such a way that his conservative opponents are not able to criticize him effectively, lest they seem unpatriotic.
This is a familiar approach for Correa. He used similar tactics back in 2010 when he declared that the police riot and strike represented an attempted coup d’etat. Stirring nationalist and populist furor, he shut down both a brewing internal rebellion among leftists within his party and efforts from the opposition on the right to slow down his left-leaning reform agenda.
Though the six months until February’s vote is a long time in electoral politics, Ecuador’s new elections law make the current period particularly important. According to the reforms passed in January, political speech in the media, such as campaign advertising, is severely restricted for the final 90 days before election day. In effect, it means that Guillermo Lasso and the opposition have only until November to make a serious dent in Correa’s lead by way of campaign advertising.
Therefore, the longer and more dramatic the Assange case is, and the longer Ecuador’s diplomatic dispute with the UK and Sweden continues, the more the Ecuadorian election campaign will dwell on international affairs – a sphere the incumbent Correa dominates in relation to his opponents. With far fewer risks than the major electoral benefits it delivers, the diplomatic spat is clearly in Correa’s political favor.