Tag Archives: hague

In defense of David Cameron

Prime minister David Cameron resigned earlier this morning. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)
Prime minister David Cameron resigned earlier this morning. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)

Normally, when a politician — especially a president or a prime minister — resigns, he or she is met with effusive praise.United Kingdom Flag Icon

There’s the defeat. Then the stepping down. Then a deluge of pieces heralding the peaks as well as the valleys of the political career that’s just ended.

Not David Cameron, who stepped out of 10 Downing Street this morning to step down as British prime minister, a day after he narrowly lost a campaign to keep the United Kingdom inside the European Union. For Cameron, today’s political obituaries, so to speak, are absolutely brutalThe Independent called him the ‘worst prime minister in a hundred years.’

And that’s perhaps fair. He is, after all, the prime minister who managed to guide his country, accidentally, out of the European Union. His country (and, indeed all of Europe) now faces a period of massive uncertainty as a result.

The man who once hectored his party to stop ‘banging on about Europe’ has now been done in over Europe — just as the last two Conservative prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

He’ll leave behind a Scotland that wanted to stay inside the European Union by a margin of 62% to 38% and that will now have the moral and political capital to demand a fresh independence referendum to become an independent Scotland within the European Union. First minister Nicola Sturgeon, of course, knew this all along, and she wasted no time in making clear that a second vote is now her top priority.

He’ll also leave behind an awful mess as to the status of Northern Ireland, which also voted for Remain by a narrower margin. Its borders with the Republic of Ireland are now unclear, the republican Sinn Fein now wants a border poll on Irish unification and the Good Friday agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence might have to be amended.

He’ll leave behind an angry electorate in England, sharply divided by income, race, ethnicity and culture — if the divide between England Scotland looks insurmountable, so does the divide between London and the rest of England. Despite the warning signs, and the rise of Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Cameron failed to provide English voters with the devolution of regional power that voters enjoyed in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and even London.

Cameron showed, unlike Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, he was willing to accede to the wishes of Scottish nationalists and give them a say in their own self-determination. Given the corrosive nature of the eurosceptic populism within his own party and in UKIP, it wasn’t unreasonable that Cameron would force them to ‘put up or shut up’ with the first in-out vote on EU membership since 1975, when the European Union was just the European Economic Community.

On every measure, Cameron leaves behind a country more broken and more polarized than the one he inherited from Gordon Brown in May 2010. Continue reading In defense of David Cameron

The smart (and cynical) politics behind Boris’s Brexit decision

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London mayor Boris Johnson has become the most high-profile supporter of the ‘out’ side of the United Kingdom’s EU membership referendum. (Getty)

For a two-term incumbent mayor of London, supporting the campaign for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union might amount to policy malpractice.European_Union

No city stands to lose more from Brexit than London, which, despite sterling’s resilience, has become the de facto financial capital of Europe and is one of three or four truly global capitals. If the British vote to leave the European Union, of course, many finance jobs could leave London, depressing many other secondary industries. While there are powerful arguments for Brexit, even among London’s residents, it’s hard to believe that Brexit would be a net positive for London as a global and European capital.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t surprising that London’s outgoing mayor, Boris Johnson, announced his support Sunday for leaving the European Union in a lengthy ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ editorial for The Telegraph. It followed a weeklong Hamlet act that left prime minister David Cameron gasping for the support of his slightly older one-time Eton classmate. Johnson couched his support for Brexit in terms of restoring democratic control to British voters, all while proclaiming his love for Europe and making the case for strong EU-UK relations in a post-Brexit world.

Be bold, Johnson urged British voters!

Now is not the time to ‘hug the skirts of Nurse in Brussels.’

‘Boris’ is one of a few British politicians known to voters by his first name, and his star power was enough to slam the British pound to a seven-year low Monday morning. Breaking ranks with most of the cabinet in David Cameron’s majority government, Johnson upended the Brexit battle, transforming what was already becoming a tough internal fight among Tories into an all-out struggle to dominate the post-referendum era.  Continue reading The smart (and cynical) politics behind Boris’s Brexit decision

Handicapping the race to succeed Cameron as Tory leader

Boris Johnson Theresa MayPhoto credit to David Levene.

British prime minister David Cameron is gearing up to fight the toughest campaign of his life to win reelection on May 7.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Nevertheless, his announcement earlier this week that he intends to serve out two terms — and no more — has started the race to determine his successor. Despite Cameron’s efforts to signal that he will step down in 2020, there’s no guarantee that Cameron will be so lucky. The next Conservative Party leadership race could start immediately after the British election if Cameron leads the party to defeat or, possibly, after 2017 when Cameron has pledged (if reelected) to hold a referendum on continuing the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union.

But even if the Tories win a renewed mandate (an outcome that seems more likely today than at any time in the past two or three years), a second Cameron term will now become even more consumed by the debate among his would-be successors to define the party’s future. Notwithstanding the planned 2017 EU referendum, the party’s next leader will determine whether the Conservatives should be relatively more pro-Europe or anti-Europe in an era that features the rise Nigel Farage’s populist and eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP). The next Tory leader will also face a fragmenting political environment that appears to be transitioning from a two-party to a multi-party system and a growing sense of constitutional crisis in the aftermath of last September’s referendum on Scottish independence. Moreover, the next Tory leader will also have to choose between two strains of economic policy — a pro-market Thatcherite approach or the more centrist ‘one nation’ Tory approach of her predecessors that concedes a stronger role for government social welfare.

Obviously, a lot depends on timing — a leadership contest in 2015 could bring a different result than a contest in 2017 or 2019.

Cameron, in his remarks earlier this week, singled out Johnson as well as chancellor George Osborne and home secretary Theresa May as particularly strong candidates. Though Cameron almost certainly prefers Osborne, whose leadership stock is certainly on the rise as the economy improves, the two frontrunners today are clearly Johnson and May (pictured together above), whose personalities and approach to politics and government couldn’t be more different.

Here’s a look at what Johnson, May, Osborne would bring to the leadership — along with four other potential candidates waiting in the wings. Continue reading Handicapping the race to succeed Cameron as Tory leader

If Scotland votes for independence, will David Cameron resign?

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It was another Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillian, who explained in just five short words how governments can crumble with such spectacular suddenness:scotlandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Events, my dear boy, events.

Today, his Tory successor, British prime minister, David Cameron faces one of the biggest events of the history of his country — the possible disintegration of the British union, as the chances of a Scottish vote in favor of independence in 10 days rise dramatically.

As polls show that the campaign has rapidly narrowed (the ‘No’ campaign had a 20-point lead just last month), and with handful of polls now showing that the ‘Yes’ campaign has taken a narrow lead just days before the September 18 referendum, Cameron now suddenly faces the prospect that he’ll be the prime minister on whose watch Great Britain simply dissolved.

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RELATED: Why would an independent Scotland
even want to keep the pound?

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It was Cameron, after all, who agreed with Scottish first minister Alex Salmond last year to hold a referendum, and it was Cameron who demanded a straight in/out vote — no third option for ‘devolution max’ or a federalized version of the United Kingdom.

So if Cameron loses Scotland, must Cameron go?

Victory for the independence camp would cause nearly as great a political earthquake in the rest of the United Kingdom as in Scotland. It would leave rest of the United Kingdom — England, Wales and Northern Ireland — to pick up the pieces of what was once a global superpower. All three major parties, including the center-left Labour Party and the junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, fully opposed independence. So a ‘Yes’ victory would be a repudiation, from Scotland at least, of the entire political mainstream.

Cameron’s position, in particular, would be especially vulnerable as the prime minister who allowed the great British union to fall apart.

Continue reading If Scotland votes for independence, will David Cameron resign?

What to make of Cameron’s night of the long knives

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It wasn’t a surprise that British prime minister David Cameron sacked Kenneth Clarke, the one-time self-proclaimed ‘big beast’ of the Conservative Party from government. United Kingdom Flag Icon

At age 74, the pro-Europe former chancellor, who began his ministerial career in Edward Heath’s government of the early 1970s, had already been demoted once from justice secretary, his progressive ideas for penal reform and lighter sentencing guidelines  thwarted by the Tory right two years ago.

But it was something of a surprise that Cameron sacked so many other high-profile members of his cabinet last night.

Foreign secretary William Hague (pictured above with Queen Elizabeth II), one of the most high-profile Tories inside or outside government will now become the Commons leader. Hague, once a strident eurosceptic, was elected leader of the Conservative Party in the aftermath of Tony Blair’s massive victory in 1997. He stepped down in 2001 after his failed campaign to return the Tories to power. Though just 53 years old, Hague also announced he would also leave office at the 2015 elections, cutting short what’s been a solid career, if not one that might have elevated Hague to the premiership under different conditions.

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His replacement is defence secretary Philip Hammond, another Conservative firebrand, who has ably worked with chancellor George Osborne to reign in spending while the United Kingdom has reduced its role in the US-led occupation in Afghanistan. Hammond, who served as Osborne’s deputy in opposition, comes from the right wing of the party, however, having opposed Cameron’s push to legalize same-sex marriage last year. He’s not known as a particularly charismatic figure, and he’ll have a hard time shaking the notion that he’s No. 11’s man at the foreign office. 

Having argued that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union without significant, additional British carve-outs, Hammond will now be tasked with salvaging the UK-EU relationship.

But the knives went longer and deeper still — David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, nicknamed ‘Two Brains’ and deemed one of the cabinet’s most thoughtful members; David Gove, the combatively conservative and stridently eurosceptic education minister; Dominic Grieve, the attorney general; Owen Patterson, the environmental secretary.

The semi-official word is that Cameron’s reshuffle represents an effort to put his cabinet and his government on footing to wage next May’s general elections, with a particular focus on elevating the number of women and younger Tories to higher positions.

To borrow a phrase from former US president Bill Clinton, a ‘cabinet that looks like Britain.’

Continue reading What to make of Cameron’s night of the long knives

Who is Taavi Rõivas? A look at Estonia’s likely new prime minister

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Last week, when Estonia’s nine-year prime minister Andrus Ansip stepped down, virtually everyone thought that Estonia’s European commissioner Siim Kallas (himself, briefly, a former prime minister) would step into Ansip’s shoes as the Eesti Reformierakond (Estonian Reform Party) prepares to put itself on a stronger footing for expected March 2015 elections.estonia

After all, Kallas helped found the Reform Party in the mid-1990s, served as a highly regarded president of Estonia’s central bank in the early 1990s, and held several posts in government before leaving for Brussels in 2004, where he’s amassed plenty of additional experience — as a vice president of the European Commission since 2010.

Instead, Kallas faced renewed controversy over $100 million in loan guarantees that he signed while central bank governor in 1994.  Moreover, the concept that Kallas could wage a shadow campaign for prime minister while still officially a member of the European Commission ruffled feathers in both Tallinn and Brussels — even more so in light of open rumors that Kallas and Ansip would simply trade jobs, with Ansip stepping into Kallas’s shoes at the Commission.

Kallas formally ruled out a return as prime minister on Wednesday, and the Reform party nominated instead Taavi Rõivas (pictured above), social affairs minister since just December 2012.  At age 34, he would be the youngest head of government in Europe, and notably, the first Estonian leader who was just a child when the Soviet Union collapsed — Estonia won its independence just five days short of Rõivas’s 12th birthday. Continue reading Who is Taavi Rõivas? A look at Estonia’s likely new prime minister

Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

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While most of Europe was watching the birth of Germany’s latest grand coalition government last week, Austria’s grand coalition also finalized its government platform.austria flag

Austria, which has an even stronger tradition of cozy coalition politics between the center-left and the center right, will continue to a coalition that’s comprised of its main center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and its main center-right party, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

There was very little unexpected news about the coalition deal, which will continue the broadly centrist course of center-left chancellor Werner Faymann’s government.

But the decision to elevate the hunky 27-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s new foreign minister was something of a shock.  Michael Spindelegger, the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor, who previously served as foreign minister between 2008 and 2013, will become the government’s new finance minister.

The decision leaves Kurz (pictured above) as one of the world’s youngest political leaders in such a high policymaking role.

So who is this whiz kid?  Kurz became involved in politics at age 10, and by 2009, he was the leader of the youth wing of the Austrian People’s Party.  In 2010, he was elected to the city council of his native Vienna, running under the slogan, ‘Schwarz macht neil‘ (‘Black is cool,’ referring to the color most associated with the People’s Party) in a campaign Hummer that quickly gained the nickname as the ‘Geilomobil‘ (which translates roughly to ‘Horny-mobile’), befitting Kurz’s growing reputation as somewhat of a party animal.  Before you judge him too harshly, however, remember that it was part of a wider push to make the ÖVP more attractive to young voters. And just four months ago, two competing leaders of the Austrian far right both posed shirtless in public.

But by 2011 he was already serving as state secretary for integration, where he impressed skeptics by working to ease the path for the growing number of immigrants to Austria, including through the institution of an extra year of pre-school for immigrant children to learn German.  He helped spearhead a new immigration law in May of this year that clears a path to citizenship for some immigrants within six years.

It was a controversial move on Spindelegger’s part, but it paid off, and Kurz was elected to the Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament, in the September 29 parliamentary elections with a higher number of votes than any other candidate. 

His approach contrasts with that of the more xenophobic approach to immigration of Austria’s far right.  In  September, the Social Democrats won 27.1% and the Austrian People’s Party won 23.8%, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won 21.4%, a strong third-place finish.  But a Dec. 12 Hajek poll showed that if the elections were held over today, the Freedom Party would emerge as the leading party with 26%, followed by the Social Democrats with 23% and the Austrian People’s Party at 20%.  A new free-market libertarian partyDas Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), which entered the National Council for the first time in September’s elections, would win 11%.

The Freedom Party’s relatively young and charismatic leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, wasted no time in criticizing Kurz for his inexperience:

“When Mr Kurz becomes foreign minister without any diplomatic experience, you have to be amazed. This is the continuation of Austria’s farewell to foreign policy,” right-wing leader Heinz Christian Strache told parliament on Tuesday.

Kurz… took the blows.  “It’s true, of course. Due to my age I have limited experience and of course hardly any diplomatic experience. But what I bring is lots of diligence, energy and the desire to contribute something,” he told Reuters.

But Kurz emphasized the international nature of his previous role with respect to integration, and he argued that his relative youth and high media profile would allow him to make an immediate impact.  Though Austria, with just 8.5 million people, has a less dominant voice on European matters than Germany, it plays a key role in the Balkans, where Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries are hoping to begin accession talks to the European Union early next year. (If your German skills are up for it, here’s an interview with Kurz in Der Standard earlier this week).

Kurz’s appointment also means that he will likely take a key role in the upcoming European Parliament elections by convincing Austrian voters not to turn to euroskeptic parties like the Freedom Party or Team Stronach, the conservative movement of Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach.  Spindelegger was criticized during his tenure at the ministry for being a ‘half-time foreign minister’ in light of his duties as the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor. Continue reading Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

Obama wisely treads softly in wake of Syrian chemical attack

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In the aftermath of what now seems like a devastating and lethal chemical-weapons attack against thousands of civilians on the outskirts of Damascus early Wednesday, U.S. president Barack Obama is treading lightly on the evolving turn in the Syrian civil war — at least until we know more about the circumstances of the attack.USflagfreesyria Syria Flag Icon

In an interview today with CNN, Obama measured his words very carefully about what action he believes the United States or the international community can or should take in the wake of what amounts to a violation of international law:

Asked about claims by anti-regime activists in Syria that Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical weapons in an attack that was said to have killed more than 1,300 people, Obama responded that officials are “right now gathering information” and that “what we’ve seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”

“It is very troublesome,” the president stressed.  Obama said U.S. officials are pushing “to prompt better action” from the United Nations, and are calling on the Syrian government to allow an investigation of the site of the alleged attack outside Damascus.

“We don’t expect cooperation (from the Syrian government), given their past history,” Obama conceded.  He quickly followed up with a warning, however, that “core national interests” of the U.S. are now involved in Syria’s civil war, “both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”

His words are certain to disappoint both neoconservatives on the U.S. right and liberal interventionists on the U.S. left (many of which populate key roles within his administration) who see the attack as a clear violation of international law and an invitation for an aggressive response from the international community.  Already, U.S. senator John McCain is renewing calls for U.S. military intervention in Syria.

But there’s good reason for caution, and although it’s politically easier to make bold statements at a time of international crisis, Obama’s statement on Friday wisely reflects the ambiguity that we still know very little about the Syrian civil war, the anti-Assad opposition, the chemical attack itself and the potential unintended consequences of a more muscular U.S. or European response.

No one is comfortable to sit idly by when a thousand civilians have been gassed to death.  But in a world where human rights activists and conservative hawks alike are quick to pass judgment on the Obama administration’s reaction, it’s worth taking a moment to applaud Obama’s restraint.

We still don’t yet know who is responsible for the chemical attack nor do we actually know exactly what the attack agent was (reports indicate it was perhaps sarin, mustard gas or chlorine gas, though we won’t know until soil samples and other evidence is examined).  Although British foreign minister William Hague has gone further than the Obama administration in blaming Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for the attack, the public evidence does not point to the clear conclusion that Hague has drawn.  It’s widely accepted that Assad has access to chemical weapons, but after nearly two years of open civil war, it is not impossible for some of those weapons to have fallen into opposition hands — or worse. 

The timing, most of all, is incredibly odd, as BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner and others have noted.  If anything, Assad has been winning the civil war and reclaiming ground from the opposition.  The opposition’s repeated attempts to form a unified front against Assad have been mixed at best.  Meanwhile, a United Nations weapons inspection team was in Damascus this week to determine the extent of chemical warfare during the war.  It seems incredibly unlikely that Assad, who’s gained the upper hand, would launch a chemical weapons attack the very week when UN inspectors are merely kilometers away.  Allegations of previous chemical attacks stem from March and April — this is the first chemical attack in four months.

That opens the uncomfortable door to the notion that radical elements within the opposition, which ranges from secular Assad opponents to radical Sunni jihadists and al-Qaeda sympathizers, could have unleashed the attack.  Knowing that it is losing, the chemical attack might have been a false-flag gambit designed to inflame international opinion against Assad, especially given the position that Obama has taken that chemical weapon use is a ‘red line’ that will merit international action.  But it could be radical Islamic elements unassociated with the opposition, and it could be rogue elements of the Syrian army.

So far, Assad has refused to allow U.N. inspectors to examine the scene, which is an unacceptable response.  Even Assad’s allies like Russia are calling on him to allow U.N. access, and the longer Assad hesitates, the guiltier his regime looks.

But even if Assad was responsible for the attack — the worst chemical warfare since Iraqi president Saddam Hussein unleashed chemical weapons in the 1980s against his own people and on the battlefield against Iran — there’s still reason to tread lightly. Continue reading Obama wisely treads softly in wake of Syrian chemical attack

Is Kenneth Clarke — and his experiment with prison reform — finished in British politics?

Longtime observers of British politics will note with some alarm recent reports that justice minister Kenneth Clarke may be headed out of UK prime minister David Cameron’s cabinet, pursuant to a widely expected cabinet reshuffle in early September.

To contemplate this is to see the final curtain drawn on one of the ‘big beasts’ of British politics in the past three decades — as has been noted, Clarke won his first ministerial role when UK chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne was just one year old.

The Telegraph reports that Cameron is considering replacing Clarke with Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary (and the ill-fated former leader of the Tories from 2003 to 2005), or Nick Herbert, a junior justice minister.  Even more odd is the way in which Clarke has issued a statement on the potential reshuffle:

“I have never had any conversations of any kind with the Prime Minister or anyone acting on his behalf about a reshuffle. I am totally laid back about a reshuffle and am waiting to see whether or not it affects me,” he said.

Clarke is, simply put, one of a kind: a bloke in a party of toffs.

Second to Boris Johnson, perhaps, Clarke connects with the British people in a way that few Tories have managed in recent times. Continue reading Is Kenneth Clarke — and his experiment with prison reform — finished in British politics?

Correa reelection in Ecuador a key motive in Assange asylum incident

One of the most fascinating aspects of the latest turn in the Julian Assange drama is why Ecuador — of all places — is so keen on offering Assange asylum. 

Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, made public a huge trove of classified cables from the U.S. State Department, starting in February 2010.  Assange has also been charged on a warrant by Sweden for sexual assault and voluntarily entered English custody in December 2010.

Assange claims that in Sweden (unlike in the Great Britain), he will be subject to extradition or illegal rendition to the United States, where he also claims he will be charged with espionage and other crimes in relation to the release of the U.S. classified cables.  I will leave aside the issue of whether that’s a valid concern or paranoid delusion, but given the global attention now on Assange, it seems certain that the United States would face massive criticism and a significant soft-power blow, even among its allies, for such a move.

In any event, on June 19, Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and Ecuador granted asylum to Assange on August 16.  The United Kingdom, for its part, refuses to guarantee the safe passage of Assange, who now faces the puzzle of getting from Ecuador’s embassy out of the country.  The United Kingdom apparently sent a letter last week to the Ecuadorian embassy that seemed to threaten invasion of Ecuador’s embassy to reclaim Assange — that would appear to be  a fairly significant break with the international law that governs diplomatic relations, which is one of the few areas of international law that countries take seriously as law.

Besides, the idea of UK foreign minister William Hague ordering a military siege in posh Knightsbridge to capture Assange is so outrageous (and hilarious) that I doubt the British government would ever stoop to something like that.  Far better to wait it out until Assange tries to flee, or simply strip Ecuador of its diplomatic status by cutting off ties.

Assange raised the temperature even more Sunday with a scathing denunciation of the United States from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy.

But why would Ecuador even bother to step into such a fraught battle of international intrigue that has already become a headache for the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden and Assange’s native country of Australia?

Max Fisher at The Atlantic makes the case that Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa is angling to pick a fight with a stalwart of Western government:

Though we can’t know the Ecuadorian government’s motivation for sure, engineering a high-profile and possibly protracted confrontation with a Western government would actually be quite consistent with Correa’s practice of using excessively confrontational foreign policy in a way that helps cement his populist credibility at home.  It would also be consistent with his habit of using foreign embassies as proxies for these showdowns — possibly because they tend to generate lots of Western outrage with little risk of unendurable consequences.

That seems just about right, and it doesn’t hurt that South American ally Argentina already detests the United Kingdom over the status of the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) since the 1982 war and before.

But there’s a vital element missing from this narrative: Correa faces reelection in February 2013.

Continue reading Correa reelection in Ecuador a key motive in Assange asylum incident