Canadian Election Threatens Justin Trudeau’s Grip on Power

Canadian Election Threatens Justin Trudeau’s Grip on Power

17:31 - The prime minister called for a vote last month in a bid to secure a Liberal parliamentary majority, but polls show his party may lose ground

After calling for an election meant to secure a stronger mandate, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instead faces a tight vote as Canadians head to the polls on Monday.

The snap parliamentary elections were called by Mr. Trudeau halfway through his four-year term in mid-August, when Canada’s Liberal Party was riding high in the polls following Mr. Trudeau’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr. Trudeau invoked his powers to dissolve Parliament and call a vote, gambling his party could win a legislative majority to push through an agenda that includes expanded access to child care and aggressive measures to fight climate change.

Yet this bid to shore up support seems to have fallen flat, with polling over the weekend indicating Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals and the Conservative Party are in a tight race, with the possibility that Liberals could lose seats in Parliament instead of gaining a majority. Mr. Trudeau’s main political rivals and some voters have blasted the prime minister for putting his own political interests ahead of the public, which remains preoccupied with Covid-19.

“Are the Liberals in the position to win a majority? At this moment, no. And they’re going to be in the fight of their lives to hold on to power,” said Darrell Bricker, chief executive of polling firm Ipsos Global Public Affairs. An Ipsos poll issued Sunday had the Conservatives at 32% and Liberals at 31%.

Since the last election in October 2019, Mr. Trudeau has led a minority government, requiring support from other parties to get legislation passed. A majority in Monday’s election would allow Mr. Trudeau to push through his agenda without having to strike deals with opposition parties. It would also give his party control over parliamentary committees, whose investigations into financial ties between the prime minister’s family and a youth charity, as well as alleged sexual misconduct among military leadership, have proved politically embarrassing.

From the campaign’s onset, Mr. Trudeau has framed the election as a pivotal moment in the country’s history.

“We have big decisions to make based on what we learned from this pandemic,” he said this past week.

Yet the Ipsos poll also indicated over two-thirds of respondents said this was the wrong time to have an election. Anger over the election call “is an anvil that Trudeau has had strapped to his waist as he tried to swim across this election moat,” said Mr. Bricker, the pollster.

Julia Maurik, a resident in Toronto’s west end, said Monday that the election didn’t need to be called and called the exercise a waste of taxpayers’ money. “Everybody’s walking around with masks on, voting in a pandemic,” she said, outside a church where voting took place. “I’m not sure the country needs this.”

She said she believes Mr. Trudeau’s early-election call was likely motivated by polling numbers, as opposed to the prime minister’s argument that it was time to give voters a say on what post-pandemic Canada should look like. “He’s putting a spin on a decision that was opportunistic,” she said.

Eddy Moyo, 50, said he has always voted for the Liberal Party. But on Monday the Toronto resident voted Conservative for the first time, saying he is frustrated with the high cost of housing in the Toronto region. “It is not affordable,” he said.

He added he was also angered by the early election call. “One day the government is saying, ‘Stay home.’ Then it says, ‘Go out and line up with a lot of people to vote,’ ” he said.

Projections from polling aggregator 338Canada suggest the Liberal Party will win 147 of the legislature’s 338 spots versus 127 for the Conservatives, which for the Liberals would mark a decline from 155 seats at Parliament’s dissolution last month, and down from the 184 won in 2015 when Mr. Trudeau first took power.

Mr. Trudeau has declined to answer reporters’ questions on the campaign trail about his future in the event he doesn’t win a majority.

“I am not done fighting for Canadians,” Mr. Trudeau said on Sept. 3, when asked if he would remain Liberal leader if his party lost.

Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election in part because of his administration’s handling of the pandemic. Though Mr. Trudeau received high marks among Canadians for managing the public-health crisis, that seemingly hasn’t helped on the campaign trail.

“Adequate pandemic management is no longer sufficient to win re-election in the post-Covid world,” said Daniel Béland, a political-science professor at Montreal’s McGill University.

Mr. Béland pointed out that voters in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia ousted the incumbent Liberals in an election last month, even though the province’s Covid-19 strategy earned widespread praise.

Other factors are weighing on Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Béland and pollsters say. Chief among them, analysts say, is Mr. Trudeau’s personal popularity. It has taken a hit during his six years in office after a series of ethics scandals cast doubt about his judgment. And, they add, he is no longer the fresh face with the positive demeanor that helped carry the Liberals to power back in 2015.

A spokesman for the Liberal Party said the election campaign has “seen a hugely positive response to Mr. Trudeau’s progressive plan to finish the fight against Covid-19.”

Morrie Berglas, a tech-company employee in Ottawa, said he cast his vote for the Liberals. “I don’t think the Liberals have done that bad a job,” Mr. Berglas said. “There’s nothing stellar, but it could be a lot worse.”

Helping the Conservative Party in this election is the fact that its relatively new leader, Erin O’Toole, has positioned himself as a moderate, political analysts say. Unlike in past campaigns, the Tory platform no longer advocates an immediate return to balanced budgets. Instead, its total proposed net spending is largely in line with the Liberals.

Yet Mr. O’Toole, a former military officer and cabinet minister, has criticized Mr. Trudeau’s plans to force federal government employees to be fully vaccinated and to compel plane and train travelers to show proof of vaccination.

“He has not provided a plan for Canada. But instead, he’s veered into personal attacks and misleading politics,” said Mr. O’Toole, in reference to Mr. Trudeau’s allegations that the Conservative Party candidate would endanger communities with his Covid-19 policies.

Mr. O’Toole said that he would respect personal health choices and that he favors rapid testing and screening over mandates.

For his part, Mr. Trudeau has argued that Mr. O’Toole isn’t fit to handle the pandemic because has to cater to elements of his party who reject pandemic-fueled restrictions.

“He welcomes into his party people who are putting other people at risk,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Conservative Party prospects for victory, though, are complicated by growth in the upstart, libertarian-leaning People’s Party, which is attracting right-wing voters with a platform that strongly opposes Covid-19-related social-distancing restrictions and vaccine mandates, calls for deep spending cuts and favors limits on immigration.

At a Labor Day event on Sept. 6, protesters expressing anger over lockdowns and proposed vaccine mandates, some of them carrying signs in support of the People’s Party, threw stones at the prime minister. Police in London, Ontario, have filed a criminal charge of assault with a weapon against an area resident.

Mr. Trudeau also risks losing support from the very progressive-leaning voters he has counted on in his two past electoral wins. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, said Mr. Trudeau has a disappointing record on matters of interest to left-leaning voters, such as the environment, affordable housing and reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous population.

“I think Canadians preferred the minority government we were in because they saw that we were able to get things done for Canadians,” Mr. Singh said. “You don’t reward someone who calls a selfish election with a majority.”

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