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6 September 2021

Canadian election 2021: can the opposition sustain its surge?

The opposition has moved ahead of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the polls but the contest remains uncertain.

By Ido Vock

The leaders of the five main Canadian parties will face off in two televised debates on 8–9 September, amid an unexpected surge in the polls for the nation’s Conservative Party, currently in opposition. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who leads the centre-left Liberals, the Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, Québécois nationalist Yves-François Blanchet, left-winger Jagmeet Singh and the Green Party’s Annamie Paul will meet twice, debating in French on the first night and in English the evening after. Canadians will go to the polls on 20 September.

Trudeau, who leads a minority government, called a snap election on 15 August. He is hoping to emulate the political nous of Pierre Trudeau, his father, who as prime minister of a minority government called a snap election in 1974 and was returned with a majority.

Trudeau appeared to be betting that his successes in handling the coronavirus pandemic – about three-quarters of Canadians have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, one of the highest rates in the world – would lead voters to reward him with a parliamentary majority. Polls showed Trudeau’s party ahead by around six or seven points when the election was called. At the last election, the Liberals won the most seats but were behind on the share of the vote.

The race has in the past few days been upended, however. The Conservatives now lead the polls as support for the Liberals has dipped. O’Toole has sought to capitalise on anger at Trudeau for calling an election two years early, even as the pandemic is far from over. “Why did you trigger an election in the middle of a fourth wave?” he asked Trudeau during a debate last week.

O’Toole has campaigned as a “Red Tory” moderate, reaching out to LGBT and non-white Canadians in an attempt to broaden the appeal of the Conservatives. He has also pledged to give workers “a real voice”, an attempt to convince union members to back him. His stance on indigenous rights has also won him plaudits, a particularly contentious issue this campaign following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites this spring.

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“He has a difficult balancing act,” said Roland Paris, professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa. “He needs to satisfy the more conservative base of his party while also appealing to moderate voters, particularly in the suburbs of Toronto. He’s [so far] managed to thread that needle – we’ll see if he’s able to continue doing so.”

The Conservatives have also gained confidence from a provincial election win in Nova Scotia days after the national election was called. The Progressive Conservatives, a regional ally of the national Conservative Party, won power in the province for the first time since 2006, cementing the sense that the Liberals could be defeated with a well-run campaign.

The other three leaders remain relatively marginal. Singh’s left-wing critiques of Trudeau’s leadership have so far failed to translate into substantially higher poll ratings, although his New Democratic Party is currently polling higher than its 2019 result. Blanchet’s Bloc Québécois only fields candidates in Quebec, so its impact on the national parliament’s arithmetic is limited.

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The race is still volatile. Whether the Conservative surge will be sustained as Canadians return from their summer holidays and begin to pay attention to the election in earnest is still uncertain. “I’m not sure if the campaign’s critical issue has yet emerged,” Paris said. “As we’ve seen that with the [withdrawal from] Afghanistan, election campaigns are often driven by unforeseen events.”

[See also: The SPD’s surge reflects the search for Merkel 2.0]