The first rule of being a good houseguest is knowing not to overstay your welcome. But Julian Assange was never one for manners—or morals.
Since the Wikileaks founder was offered asylum by Ecuador president Rafael Correa in 2012, Assange has watched the world change dramatically from his tiny room at the country’s embassy in London. In no small part due to Wikileaks’ disruptive involvement in the US presidential election, Assange’s public image has suffered significantly during this tumultuous period, too. He walked into the embassy a fugitive and alleged sex offender, sure, but one still best known as an advocate of radical transparency, government accountability, and human rights. Now he’s widely seen as a capricious, petty troll who’s been discredited by many of those who once rushed to his defense.
The blows to Assange’s reputation haven’t just made him look bad. They’ve lowered his value as a political asset. If he once enabled Ecuador to thumb its nose at American imperial power and advertise its commitments to freedom of speech and human rights, his lingering presence is now a reminder of the emptiness of this political posturing—and how unsustainable it is in current geopolitical conditions.
Assange has said that he’s willing to leave in May and make good on his promise to give himself up if Chelsea Manning was pardoned. But he may have little choice but to show himself out. In October, his hosts cut off his internet access after Wikileaks leaked caches of emails targeting US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And in November, Ecuadorian officials allowed Swedish prosecutors to question him in the embassy.
Upcoming elections in Ecuador this February could also be contributing to his exit. Rafael Correa will not be running for a third term, and his successor—whether it’s his appointed heir, Lenin Moreno, opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso, or a third party—has much bigger things to worry about than a ghoulish fugitive squatter. Lasso, who’s to the right of center, expressed a desire to kick Assange out in a recent interview; other candidates have barely mentioned his name. According to observers, Assange is a non-issue to voters, who view him largely as a sideshow or a distraction.
When Assange first sought refuge from the Latin-American country, he served a clear political purpose. President Correa was riding high on populist support and the proceeds of high oil prices. His alliance with Assange was a politically expedient way to send a message to the rest of the world: He was not afraid to defy Western powers; he was serious about his commitment to freedom of expression (even as he cracked down hard on journalists at home); and his country would not cave to external pressure, even though it was poor, small, and somewhat marginal.
“Correa was playing the nationalist card,” says Andres Mejia Acosta, a professor of international politics at King’s College London. “It was a direct provocation to the US and an indirect one to the UK: It said, ‘we don’t think you have the right to exert your imperial discretion to persecute someone who’s pursuing freedom of press.’”
Now oil prices have dropped, Correa’s popularity has waned, and Ecuador’s economy has faltered. That means Assange isn’t politically useful anymore. In fact, his presence is starting to get in the way of more important matters.
“The country has become much more interested in trade and investment with the US, so we’ve seen a muting of anti-imperialist, anti-American rhetoric over past year,” says Ben Raderstorf, a program associate at the Inter-American Dialogue who’s been following the election closely. “Experts tend to agree that they’re more concerned with the how the US could be an economic opportunity and don’t want to poison that. When it comes down to it, politics and symbolism matter less than hard dollars.”
Given the situation, Raderstorf says the main reason anyone continues to side with Assange is to avoid losing face. It’s one thing for a Latin-American leftist to play nice with the Democrats; it’s another game entirely to make concessions to the Trump administration. In fact, Correa has said that he sees Trump as an opportunity for leftists, if they play their cards right—not because he’s popular, but because he’s so bad that those who oppose him could gain momentum.
“The last thing [the Ecuadorians] want to do is look like they’re bowing to the US at this moment in time,” Raderstorf says. “This is a moment when most left-wing leaders will be very careful with anything they do that could look like capitulation to a Trump administration.”
By leaving on his own accord, Assange would take the pressure off everyone at a particularly uncomfortable moment, Mejia says. “If Correa’s no longer president, it’s not a big concession to his party if Assange is no longer in the embassy. The other opposition parties would not be interested in keeping him in, either; they wouldn’t defend someone else’s trophy. Practically speaking, it’s uncomfortable, it’s expensive, so his leaving is a win-win.”
The question now is: Where in the world will Julian Assange go next? One thing’s clear: his conduct from that tiny room in Knightsbridge will have put off a lot of potential hosts.