Assange as Tyrant?


WHEN asked to explain why he was running for a seat in the Australian Senate while holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, Julian Assange quoted Plato: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

Plato was “a bit of a fascist,” he said, but had a point.

Imagine the chagrin Mr. Assange must feel now, given that not only did he fail to win a place in the Senate in the recent election, but he was less successful than Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiasts Party. Mr. Muir, who won just 0.5 percent of the vote, is most famous for having posted a video on YouTube of himself having a kangaroo feces fight with friends.

Mr. Assange, who was born and raised in Australia, has radically redefined publishing and provoked an unprecedented global debate about state secrets by subverting established practices and common wisdoms.

It seems odd, then, that his bid for political power, carried out in his absence by the WikiLeaks Party, was drowned by the greatest and most conventional of clichés: power corrupts. His campaign was saddled with the usual backbiting, arguing, dysfunction and even leaks.

In theory, it should have turned out better for him. Australians, who have long had a soft spot for irreverent iconoclasts and an abiding suspicion of authority, have always been more sympathetic to Mr. Assange than Americans have been. A 2013 poll found 58 percent of Australians agreed with the statement “the job WikiLeaks does is more of a good thing.”  Only 29 percent thought it was “more of a bad thing.”

When Mr. Assange decided to run for the Senate, pollsters estimated he could get as much as 4 percent of the vote, with an outside chance of winning a seat, despite the fact that he would be campaigning in absentia.

The WikiLeaks Party candidates were highly skilled researchers, activists and academics. Their policies centered on protecting whistle-blowers, limiting surveillance agencies and ensuring greater transparency.

But during the campaign, after his party imploded with infighting, allegations of selling out and a host of resignations, Mr. Assange was exposed as a politician himself, with some of the same moral failings he has been skewering others for. A couple of weeks before the election, a storm erupted over preference deals, where parties that have already achieved the number of votes they need for a Senate seat can arrange to give spare votes to other parties, which usually pledge to give theirs in return. (Preferences are also passed on by parties whose votes are too low to get a seat.)

These deals are crucial paths to power for minor parties. In leaked e-mails, Mr. Assange stressed that preferences were “the single most important factor” in winning, adding: “Bar a raid on the embassy, we will not win without them.”

But WikiLeaks members alleged that Mr. Assange’s deputies had overridden the party’s governing body, the national council, to allow for preference deals that place right-wing anti-abortion or fringe parties — like the Shooters and Fishers Party — ahead of leftist parties like the Greens, which had supported WikiLeaks. The campaign manager, Greg Barns, attributed the deals to an “administrative error,” but WikiLeaks’s national council had agreed to put the Greens first, and some directors requested an immediate internal investigation. The conflict over those deals, and a delayed investigation, prompted a high-profile WikiLeaks candidate, Leslie Cannold, to resign. She said the party was not what it claimed to be: “a democratically run party that both believes in transparency and accountability.”

Ms. Cannold, an ethicist, has not spoken to Mr. Assange since. “This internal corruption revealed him to be no different,” she said, than the politicians he was claiming he’d be keeping accountable.

Mr. Assange put the resignation down to “the teething problems of a young party” and said he had been distracted by Edward Snowden. But several others resigned at the same time, including Dan Matthews, a founding member and one of Mr. Assange’s oldest friends. Mr. Matthews said in a statement that their “base evaporated” after the deals were made public and that Mr. Assange was incapable of working with a group. He was “an icon,” but he was “his own man.”

Mr. Assange’s actions were at odds with a democratic party structure. He had appointed himself president, for example, although there was no mention of this role in the WikiLeaks constitution.

When a reporter asked him why, he laughed: “I founded it. I mean seriously, this is so fantastic. Look at the name, this is the WikiLeaks Party. The prominent candidate is Julian Assange! Who founded it? I founded it. Are you serious?”

An unbowed Mr. Assange has vowed to fight the next election in three years. But to woo the 99 percent of the Australian population who spurned him, he’ll need to stop laughing at those who suggest that appointing yourself the unquestioned leader of a party, for an unlimited term, might make you a politician after all.

And not exactly a democratic one.