Politics

With Correa up for re-election, Assange is poised for 4 more years of Ecuador gov't love

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Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa speaks during a press conference at the Carondelet Palace in Quito on August 22, 2012. Ecuador on Tuesday called on Britain to retract a threat to arrest WikiLeaks founder Julian Assangee at its embassy in London, adding that Quito remains open to dialogue.

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RODRIGO BUENDIA

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is running for a third term in the South American country’s February 2013 election, and he will probably win.

It’s a sign that Julian Assange — the Aussie WikiLeaks founder holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London since June — has proved he can make allies with staying power.

The two men appeared to hit it off swimmingly in April when Assange interviewed Correa for his "The World Tomorrow" show on broadcaster Russia Today (see video below).

“WikiLeaks made us stronger,” Correa told the whistleblowing site’s boss.

Four months later, the Correa administration made a poignant move to grant asylum to Assange. And today Assange remains in the country's diplomatic quarters in London.

Assange’s lawyer says it’s time to get out of those quarters if he wants to stay healthy, The Times of India reported.

Assange, 41, tries to keep fit with daily exercise with a personal trainer, including three-to-five-mile runs on a treadmill each day, the report said.

Assange no doubt would like to take up the asylum offer in Ecuador, and surely he could do much worse. Ecuador's a big banana exporter and small OPEC oil producer that straddles the equator. It's got the Amazon, the Andes and the Galapagos Islands. (Here's a GlobalPost Ecuador guide for Assange.)

Leaving the embassy would be a risky move. UK officials vow to arrest the secret-spiller the moment he steps out of the building and would extradite him to Sweden for questioning over sex crime allegations.

Assange’s followers, including apparently the government of Ecuador, believe those accusations are politically motivated — a plot to ultimately ferry Assange off to the United States, where he’s reportedly designated an “enemy of the state.”

A third successive term for Correa could secure the WikiLeaker turned asylee another four years of support from an administration that’s an unlikely bedfellow.

Earlier this year, GlobalPost correspondents visited Ecuador and reported that the government would be awkward company for a man praised as a champion of transparency and freedom of the press.

GlobalPost series: WikiLocked

Although the leftist president is wildly popular — independent political scientists put his approval ratings above 60 percent — Correa is fending off a wave of criticism for his heavy-handed treatment of journalists who criticize him, explained GlobalPost’s Simeon Tegel.

Opposition newspaper El Universo is one case in point. It has fought lawsuits for criminal libel for lambasting Correa in its articles, including a column that described the democratically elected president as “el Dictador.”

El Universo has won praise itself as a champion against governments’ media crackdowns.

This year Columbia University awarded El Universo a citation at its Maria Moors Cabot Prizes, thought to be the oldest international prizes in journalism. When the paper’s directors went to New York for Cabot awards ceremony in October, attendees were met with about a dozen Ecuadorean protesters shouting “Down with the corrupt press,” “Shame on Columbia University” and “Long live President Correa.”

Correa, 49, has a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois, a fact that seemed to intrigue Assange during his Russia Today interview.

Tegel said his presidency boasts other significant attributes.

“Burly, articulate, charismatic and with a notoriously short fuse, Correa has brought political continuity to Ecuador, traditionally one of Latin America’s most unstable nations, while forcing through badly needed reforms including in the police and public schools,” Tegel said.

But Correa’s next term is possible because he also pushed through a new constitution, a move common among like-minded populist leaders allied to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Correa’s challengers include Alberto Acosta, the president’s former cabinet member who had headed the committee that saw the new constitution through.

Another rival for the top job is former President Abdala Bucaram, who was toppled in 1997 by lawmakers who claimed he was “mentally incompetent,” Infolatam.com reported. Bucaram later took on the nickname “loco.”

So far they appear to be no match for Correa.

“Correa looks likely to win,” says a recent report by Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in New York.

Could there be room in his government for a smart Australian who shares Correa’s distrust for American superpower? Now wouldn’t that be loco.