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Bland versus flash? Canada elects new parliament after tight race

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Picture Sean Kilpatrick/Pool via REUTERS | Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer debate a point during the Canadian federal election leaders’ debate in Gatineau, Québec, on October 7, 2019.

Canadians are electing a new Parliament on Monday after a tight election campaign that has raised the threat of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau being knocked from power after just one term.

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The 47-year-old Trudeau channelled the star power of his father, the liberal icon and late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he won in 2015 but a combination of scandal and high expectations have damaged his prospects.

The Liberals and Tories went into the home stretch in a dead heat, each with about 31-32 percent support after 40 days of mudslinging.

Pollsters are predicting a minority government will result from Monday’s vote – led either by the Liberals or the Conservatives – as the smaller New Democratic Party (NDP), Green Party and Bloc Québécois have continued to chip away at the frontrunners’ leads.

Not in 84 years has a first-term Canadian prime minister with a parliamentary majority lost a bid for re-election.

Trudeau reasserted liberalism in 2015 after almost 10 years of Conservative Party government in Canada, but he is one of the few remaining progressive leaders in the world. He has been viewed as a beacon for liberals south of the border in the Donald Trump era, even appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine under the headline “Why Can’t He Be Our President?”

 

Perhaps sensing Trudeau is in trouble, Barack Obama last week made an unprecedented endorsement by a former US president in urging Canadians to re-elect Trudeau, calling him an “effective leader who takes on big issues like climate change”.

“The world needs his progressive leadership now,” Obama tweeted Wednesday.

Lapses

Plagued by a blackface scandal and accused of ethics lapses in the handling of the bribery prosecution of an engineering giant, Trudeau has seen his star dim, his judgment questioned and his personal popularity slip over the past year.

He was hurt by the scandal that erupted earlier this year when his former attorney general said he pressured her to halt the prosecution of a Quebec company. Trudeau has said he was standing up for jobs, but the damage gave a boost to the Conservative Party led by Andrew Scheer.

 

No party is expected to get a majority of Parliament’s 338 seats, so a shaky alliance may be needed to pass legislation.

If it is the Conservatives who win the most seats – but not a majority – they will probably try to form a government with the backing of Quebec’s separatist Bloc Québécois. In contrast, Trudeau’s Liberals would likely rely on the NDP to stay in power.

Attack machine

Scheer, meanwhile, has struggled to convince voters to look past his dull, minivan-driving dad persona and the party’s minimalist platform to give the rookie leader a chance to govern.

Throughout the campaign, the devout Catholic father-of-five faced criticism for padding his resume and over his personal opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

A career politician who served as Canada’s youngest Speaker of the House of Commons, Scheer is described by those in his own party as bland, a possible antidote for those tired of Trudeau’s flash. The 40-year-old fiscal and moral conservative calls Trudeau a phony who can’t even recall how many times he has worn blackface.

 

Conservative Jason Kenney, Alberta’s premier and a close friend of Scheer, calls the party leader “an extremely normal Canadian” who is so nice he “can’t fake being mean”.

Scheer, however, has so relentlessly attacked Trudeau that Nik Nanos, a Canadian pollster, said he hasn’t been himself.

“Scheer has been hostage to the message,” Nanos said. “His campaign has made him into an attack machine.”

Conservative supporters chanted “Lock him up! Lock him up!” at a rally Saturday after Scheer said he would investigate Trudeau’s attorney general scandal – mirroring the Hillary Clinton “Lock her up!” chant popular at Trump rallies. Scheer moved to calm the crowd and changed the chant to “Vote him out”.

Hugging refugees

Trudeau embraced immigration at a time when the US and other countries were closing their doors, even personally welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada with a hug and a gift of a parka. More than 45,000 Syrians were resettled in the country during his first term in office.

Under Trudeau’s leadership, Canada became only the second nation to legalise cannabis, held a public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, and passed legislation permitting medically assisted suicide.

His also negotiated a new free trade deal for Canada with the US and Mexico amid threats by President Donald Trump to scrap it.

But Trudeau’s efforts to strike a balance on the environment and the economy have been criticised by both the right and left. He brought in a carbon tax to fight climate change but rescued a stalled pipeline expansion project to get Alberta’s oil to international markets.

Scheer, for his part, is promising to end the carbon tax and cut government spending, including foreign aid, by 25 percent.

“That money belongs to you, not to them,” Scheer said.

Battleground push

Their voices hoarse, the frontrunning rivals made last, desperate pitches to undecided voters over the weekend in the key battleground provinces of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

“We need a strong, progressive government that will unite Canadians and fight climate change, not a progressive opposition,” Trudeau told a rally in a suburb of Vancouver after whistle-stops in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta.

“We need to unite as citizens. We need to unite as a planet,” the Liberal leader said.

Scheer, also crisscrossing the country over the weekend, accused the Liberals of being spendthrift, saying on Sunday in Vancouver: “The choice tomorrow is between a Liberal-NDP coalition that will run massive deficits and leave less money in your pocket or a Conservative government that will get back to balanced budgets and make life more affordable."

“Trudeau would pay any price to stay in power and he’d use your money to do it,” he continued. “We want Canadians to send Conservative MPs to Ottawa to undo the damage that Justin Trudeau has caused.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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