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20 September 2021

Canadian election 2021: Will Justin Trudeau’s gamble pay off?

Failure to secure a majority may spark leadership questions within the prime minister’s own party.

By Ido Vock

Canadians go to the polls today, Monday 20 September, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election last month. Trudeau – who leads a Liberal minority government – had been hoping to be returned to office with a parliamentary majority. The campaign has been marked, however, by a surge in support for the opposition Conservative party under Erin O’Toole.

Calling the election was always a gamble. The current parliament, elected in 2019, was scheduled to run until 2023. Although his Liberal party was leading in the polls, the prime minister could have allowed the parliamentary term to run its course and remain secure in power for at least two more years.

That hold on power is now uncertain. Trudeau, in calling the election, argued that he needed a majority to steer Canada out of the pandemic. Yet as Megan Gibson, the New Statesman’s new senior editor, international, told Emily Tamkin and I in an episode of the World Review podcast, that argument has failed to convince many Canadians. Trudeau himself does not seem to be able to make a convincing case for why an election was needed. Accordingly, polls show voters deserting the prime minister.

Following a surge in Conservative support, the polls are now balanced on a knife edge, according to Ben Walker’s analysis of Canadian voter intentions. Both parties are currently credited with about 31 per cent of the vote, although the Liberals would have an advantage under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system (at the last election, Trudeau’s party was behind on the share of the vote but gained the most seats). The short campaign has seen the share of Canadians who want to see O’Toole returned as prime minister shoot up, while Trudeau’s ratings have dipped.

Another crucial player will be the left-winger Jagmeet Singh, whom Megan has profiled. If Trudeau is returned to office but again without a majority, the “kingmaker” leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) could end up in a similar position to the one he has been in since the last election – supporting the government but pushing it left on certain key issues. 

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This weekend, the Liberals announced that they would drop a candidate over an undisclosed 2019 sexual assault charge. He will not sit with the Liberal caucus if elected, the party said. 

If Trudeau fails to win a majority today, his decision to call a snap election will go down as one of the great blunders in Canadian political history. If that happens, the prime minister will likely face questions from within the party about his leadership and judgement. 

Once the era of Angela Merkel’s German chancellorship ends at some point following this Sunday’s German election, Trudeau would have been the G7 leader who had been in office the longest. Just six days before the election was called, the magazine Maclean’s was reporting on Trudeau’s hopes of becoming the alliance’s “dean”. Trudeau will be hoping today that his gamble can still pay off.

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