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Ecuador decides its future, and maybe Assange’s, in runoff

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange addresses the media from the balcony of the Ecuadoran embassy in London on February 5, 2016

QUITO, Ecuador, Mar 31 – Ecuador votes Sunday in a presidential runoff that will decide whether it follows Latin America’s recent shift to the right, and could seal the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

The South American oil producer is turning the page on a decade under leftist economist Rafael Correa, a president who presided over an economic boom that has recently gone bust.

The runoff pits the socialist president’s designated heir, Lenin Moreno, against conservative ex-banker Guillermo Lasso.

Lasso finished second in the first-round vote last month, with 28 percent to Moreno’s 39 percent. But polls give him a slight edge heading into the runoff, with between 52.1 percent and 57.6 percent of the vote.

Running as the candidate of change, Lasso is vowing to overturn Correa’s legacy.

That includes threatening to revoke the political asylum Ecuador has granted its most famous guest, Assange, who has been holed up at the country’s London embassy since 2012.

Correa, an outspoken critic of the United States, let Assange stay at the embassy to avoid arrest and extradition to Sweden over a rape allegation.

The 45-year-old Australian, who denies the accusation, says he fears Sweden would send him to the United States to face trial for leaking hundreds of thousands of secret US military and diplomatic documents in 2010.

His case has returned to the spotlight since WikiLeaks was accused of meddling in the US election last year by releasing a damaging trove of hacked emails from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign and her Democratic party.

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Shifting right

The race is also a barometer of the political climate in Latin America, where more than a decade of leftist dominance has been waning.

Argentina, Brazil and Peru have all shifted to the right in recent months, as the region has sunk into recession and leftist leaders have been tarnished by a string of corruption scandals.

Boosted by high prices for its oil exports, Ecuador registered solid economic growth of 4.4 percent per year on average during the first eight years of Correa’s presidency, before tipping into recession in mid-2015.

Correa won loyal fans among the poor with generous social benefits that helped reduce the poverty rate from 36.7 percent to 23.3 percent in this country of 16 million people.

But he has also faced accusations of corruption and squandering the windfall of the oil boom.

Political analyst Napoleon Saltos of the Central University of Ecuador said the election would be played out between “the vote against the government and the fear among certain parts of the population that they will lose what they gained over the past 10 years.”

Lasso, 61, appears to have gained the edge by uniting the opposition vote behind his promises to end tax-and-spend policies and create a million jobs.

But with the race too close to call, Moreno, 64, has sought to co-opt the buzzword of “change” for himself.

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“We’re heading for a change, yes, but a positive change, not a negative change, a change toward the past,” he told AFP Wednesday.


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