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21 September 2021

What Justin Trudeau’s narrow election victory means for Canada

A snap contest that few voters wanted has left the electorate even more disenchanted than before.

By Megan Gibson

With the majority of the ballots in Canada’s snap election now counted, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau will retain his position as prime minister. But this was a contest without any real winners. Though the Liberals managed to capture the most seats, they are once again far below the 170 needed to form a majority government. Their opponents, meanwhile, failed to translate a mid-campaign poll surge into power – leaving Canada arguably more divided than when the election was called.

Let’s start with Trudeau. The Liberal leader called the election five weeks ago – two years earlier than scheduled – when polls looked favourable, with the aim of transforming his minority government into a majority. It’s a strategy that had previously worked for Canadian prime ministers (including Justin’s father, Pierre Trudeau, in 1974). But almost immediately after the announcement was made, the Liberals saw their lead shrink as support for the opposition Conservative Party and the progressive New Democratic Party (NDP) surged.

Meanwhile, Trudeau struggled to gain traction with his message that the election was vital in order to push through a successful pandemic recovery strategy. Among voters, there was little appetite to head to the polls in the middle of a fourth wave of Covid-19 and Trudeau’s strategy was widely viewed as a cynical grab for power. At many points throughout the campaign, it looked as though the Liberals might lose to the Conservatives altogether.


    

In the wake of the election, Trudeau will still need support from another party in order to push policies through parliament, and his campaign saw him make significant policy pledges on issues from childcare to climate change. Meanwhile, two of his cabinet ministers – Bernadette Jordan, who was minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard in the last parliament, and Maryam Monsef, minister of rural economic development – lost their seats to Conservative candidates.

Internal Liberal conversation is soon likely to shift towards who will succeed Trudeau as party leader. Early whispers point to either the deputy prime minister and finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, or Mark Carney, the former governor of both the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, as potential successors.

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The Conservatives under leader Erin O’Toole also failed to perform well. While polls indicated that voters approved of O’Toole, who ran a campaign that shifted his party towards the centre, this wasn’t enough. The Conservatives won the popular vote but they remain in opposition, not power. With the emergence of the right-wing People’s Party of Canada (PPC), which won 5 per cent of the vote, though not any seats, there is bound to be a push from the Conservative base to rethink O’Toole's strategy – and perhaps even O’Toole himself. 

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Even Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the progressive NDP party, wasn’t able to capitalise on the momentum that he built throughout the campaign. Though the party increased its seat total slightly, the election wasn’t the dramatic advance Singh hoped for. The NDP, long thought of as Canada’s third party, is once again in fourth place, behind the nationalist Bloc Québécois. Singh still has enough leverage to push the Liberals to the left on key issues, particularly those Trudeau noisily campaigned for, as the PM will require NDP support in parliament. But as I wrote last week in a profile of the charismatic Singh, merely influencing the agenda, rather than setting it, is an unsatisfactory position.

But perhaps the biggest losers of all, in an election that so few wanted, are the voters themselves. Although the result is apparently the status quo – the parliamentary arithmetic is remarkably similar to 2019 – this was an ugly campaign marked by violence at protests, the politicisation of vaccine mandates and palpable anger that the contest was taking place at all. Meanwhile, indigenous rights, a huge issue in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of bodies on former residential schools earlier this year, received little attention from the campaigns.

Few Canadians will feel this election has changed much for the better. They went into this election begrudgingly. Many will come out of it more alienated, more disenchanted and potentially more apathetic. It’s a result no one wanted to see.

[See also: Jagmeet Singh: the rise of Canada's kingmaker]