Canadian vote in pandemic election that could cost Trudeau
Canadians voted Monday in a tight pandemic election that could weaken Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or reward his government’s handling of the pandemic.
Trudeau gambled on an early election, trying to capitalize on Canada’s position as among the most fully vaccinated countries in the world. But the opposition has been relentless in accusing Trudeau of calling an unnecessary early vote — two years before the deadline — for his own personal ambition.
Polls indicate Trudeau’s Liberal Party is in a neck-and-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 entered the election leading a stable minority government that wasn’t under threat of being toppled. Polls showed before the campaign began last month that he would win a majority government.
But a combination of high expectations, scandal and calling the vote during the pandemic have hurt the brand of the 49-year-old prime minister, who channeled the star power of his father, the Liberal icon and late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he first won election in 2015.
Still, Trudeau is betting that Canadians don’t want a Conservative government during a pandemic. Trudeau’s government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up the economy amid lockdowns and he 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.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole hasn’t required 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.
"We do not need a Conservative government that won’t be able to show the leadership on vaccinations and on science that we need to end this," Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Montreal on Sunday.
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 against 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.
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.
Adrian Archambault, a 53-year-old Vancouver resident, voted Liberal and said he didn’t mind the election was held during a pandemic. He noted provincial elections have also happened during the pandemic.
"Everybody has been so preoccupied with COVID the last few years it wasn’t maybe a bad thing to sort of do a re-check," he said.
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.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and ex-Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton tweeted support for Trudeau.
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.