TORONTO — Canadians voted Monday in a tight pandemic election that threatens to weaken Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or even knock him from power.
Trudeau gambled on an early election in a bid to win a majority of seats in Parliament. But the opposition has been relentless in accusing Trudeau of calling an unnecessary early vote during the pandemic — two years before the deadline — for his own personal ambition.
Polls indicate Trudeau’s Liberal Party is in a neck-in-neck race with the rival Conservatives. The Liberals will likely win the most seats in Parliament, but still fail to get a majority, forcing it to rely on an opposition party to pass legislation. And an extremely close outcome could raise questions about Trudeau’s judgment and whether he should continue to lead the party long-term. A majority win would cement his legacy and leave him in power for another four years.
“Trudeau made an incredibly stupid error in judgement,” said Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto.
Trudeau entered the election leading a stable minority government that wasn’t under threat of being toppled.
The 49-year-old channeled the star power of his father, the Liberal icon and late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he first won in 2015, but a combination of high expectations, scandal and calling the election last month during the pandemic have hurt his brand.
With polling stations across the country open, Trudeau waited in line to vote with his wife and children in Montreal. Conservative leader Erin O’Toole voted with his wife in his local district in Ontario.
Trudeau is betting that Canadians will reward him for navigating the coronavirus crisis better than most countries did. Canada is now one of the most vaccinated nations in the world and Trudeau’s government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up the economy amid lockdowns.
Trudeau argues that the Conservatives’ approach, which has been more skeptical of lockdowns and vaccine mandates, would be dangerous and says Canadians need a government that follows science.
O’Toole hasn’t require his party’s candidates to be vaccinated and won’t say how many are unvaccinated. O’Toole describes vaccination as a personal health decision, but a growing number of vaccinated Canadians are becoming increasingly upset with those who refuse to get vaccinated.
“He’s more interested in standing up for the rights of anti-vaxxers within his own party than he is in standing up for people who have done the right things and want to get back to normal,” Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Windsor, Ontario, on Friday.
Trudeau supports making vaccines mandatory for Canadians to travel by air or rail, something the Conservatives oppose. And Trudeau has pointed out that Alberta, run by a Conservative provincial government, is in crisis.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, an ally of O’Toole, said the province might run out of beds and staff for intensive care units within days. Kenney has apologized for the dire situation and is now reluctantly introducing a vaccine passport and imposing a mandatory work-from-home order two months after lifting nearly all restrictions.
A Conservative win would represent a rebuke of Trudeau, who now is at risk of losing office to a politician with a fraction of his own name recognition. O’Toole, 47, is a military veteran, former lawyer and a member of Parliament for nine years.
O’Toole advertised himself a year ago as a “true-blue conservative.” He became Conservative Party leader with a pledge to “take back Canada,” but immediately started working to push the party toward the political center.
O’Toole’s new strategy, which has included disavowing positions held dear by his party’s base on issues such as climate change, guns and balanced budgets, is designed to appeal to a broader cross section of voters in a country that tends to be far more liberal than its southern neighbor.
The son of a long-time politician has faced criticism he will say and do anything to get elected.
“I’m not your dad’s Conservative Party,” O’Toole said.
Whether moderate Canadians believe O’Toole is the progressive conservative he claims to be and whether he has alienated traditional conservatives have become central questions of the campaign.
Jenni Byrne, who served as campaign manager and deputy chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said there is a lack of enthusiasm among Conservatives across the country.
“We will know on Tuesday morning whether the Erin O’Toole version of the Conservative Party is connecting with voters, but if there is any truth to the polls, it’s something that I don’t think is connecting in numbers that we have connected with in the past, including in the last election,” Byrne said.
The wild card could be a politician who narrowly lost the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2017 but who now leads a far-right party that opposes vaccines and lockdowns. Polls suggest as many as 5% to 10% support for Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada — potentially bleeding support from O’Toole’s Conservatives and helping the Liberals retain power.
Trudeau’s legacy includes embracing immigration at a time when the U.S. and other countries closed their doors. He also legalized cannabis nationwide and brought in a carbon tax to fight climate change. And he preserved free trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico amid threats by former U.S. President Donald Trump to scrap the agreement.
Perhaps sensing Trudeau is in trouble, former U.S. President Barack Obama and ex-Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton tweeted support for him.
There won’t be a Trump endorsement of O’Toole. Conservative campaign co-chair Walied Soliman said there is no alignment whatsoever between O’Toole and Trumpism.
But if O’Toole wins, he has promised to take a tougher stand against China, including banning Chinese technology giant Huawei from Canada’s next generation of telecommunication networks.
O’Toole has also said he’ll move the Canadian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem just as Trump moved the U.S. Embassy, upending decades of policy.
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