Trudeau’s Tough Fight Could Make Canada’s Small Parties Kingmakers

Trudeau’s Tough Fight Could Make Canada’s Small Parties Kingmakers


GRAVENHURST, Ontario — When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s image as a liberal reformer crumbled during the lead-up to Canada’s national election, an opportunity opened for competing left-wing parties to attract disaffected voters.

But as the campaign heads into its final week, it hasn’t quite played out that way.

The prime minister and his Liberal Party are locked in a neck-and-neck race with the Conservative Party, according to most polls, with fewer voters looking to the other choices on both the left and right. Many may not vote at all.

In 2015, when Mr. Trudeau was first elected, there was plenty of enthusiasm for his party, said Jon H. Pammett, a professor of political science at Carleton University. “This time there is not a lot of enthusiasm for any of the parties or any of the leaders,” he said.

The likely effect, Professor Pammett said, is that many people simply may not vote.

If voter turnout is low, that could hurt Mr. Trudeau. And if neither his Liberals nor the Conservatives can win a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the smaller parties may end up in a powerful position even if they do not gain many seats themselves.

Mr. Trudeau came to office four years ago promising a more open approach to politics in Canada, what he called “sunny ways.” His image, though, was badly battered early this year when his former justice minister and attorney general, an Indigenous woman, accused him of bullying her while pressing her on how to handle a criminal case.

More recently, the revelation of photographs of him in blackface and brownface soured many voters.

Analysts say large number of Mr. Trudeau’s voters are unlikely to turn to the Conservatives. They also don’t seem to be turning in large numbers to the Green Party, which focuses on the environment and has been stuck at well below 10 percent support.

The New Democratic Party, which has historically been to the left of Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals, has seen a bump in support. But it is well short of the dramatic rise in personal approval ratings for its charismatic leader, Jagmeet Singh, the first nonwhite person to lead a major political party in Canada.

Before the campaign officially got underway in September, the stars seemed aligned for the Green Party, and Elizabeth May, its widely respected leader.

Concern about climate change was at an all-time high in several polls in Canada. And while Mr. Trudeau introduced several major measures to mitigate climate change — notably a national carbon tax policy — for many people that was swept aside by his decision to spend 4.9 billion Canadian dollars on a pipeline to transport oil from Alberta to the Pacific Coast.

Ms. May presented herself to Canadians as the only leader with both the policies and commitment to accelerate Canada’s actions on climate change. As the only woman to lead a party in Canada, it was widely assumed that she would pick up votes from women upset by Mr. Trudeau’s clash earlier this year with his former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Still, the Green Party has steadily fallen in polls since its peak during the spring. Though Canadians say they worry about climate change, Ms. May’s plan may be too much, implemented too quickly for voters.

In a country with big oil and gas exports, she proposes entirely eliminating fossil fuels by 2050, and has suggested that Alberta’s oil sands, a major job source, could be wound down within a decade. In a bid to offset concerns about job and economic losses, Ms. May has ambitious plans to transition oil and gas workers to new roles but it is not universally seen as realistic.

Other parts of her platform also seem out of sync with left-leaning voters.

Like Mr. Trudeau’s opponents to his right, Ms. May is an advocate of a balanced budget, a cornerstone of the Conservative platform and a strategy that many voters view as a transparent code for cutbacks. Yet she also tacks in the opposite political direction, decrying corporate control over government and promoting expanded social programs.

Ms. May has also been beset by some gaffes. There was an embarrassing moment last month when it emerged that a party aide had doctored a photograph to replace a disposable cup in Ms. May’s hand with a reusable one sporting a metal straw and a Green Party logo.

And when she tried to take a zero-emission vehicle to a campaign stop in Gravenhurst, Ontario, a picturesque summer resort town north of Toronto, her arrival was set back considerably; the Tesla Model X ferrying her and some of her aides needed an unexpected recharging stop on the way.

Ms. May’s message to voters has been to elect enough Green members of Parliament to deny Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals control of the House of Commons.

In such a scenario, the Greens and other smaller parties would hold the balance of power, possibly even including the Bloc Québécois, a party devoted to Quebec’s separation. It runs candidates only in that province and is, according to polls, experiencing a resurgence.

Ms. May also won’t rule out cutting a deal with the Conservatives and their leader, Mr. Scheer.

“It’s very important that we don’t prejudge election results and we don’t take hard and fast positions,” she said recently, before heading off to a rally at an antique boat museum. “If we want Parliament to work. You talk to everyone.”

That’s not a view Mr. Singh shares.

In August, after the Liberals publicized a video of Mr. Scheer speaking out against same-sex marriage 15 years ago, Mr. Singh said the New Democrats would not support any Conservative minority government that might emerge from this election.

It was one of several actions that help shift the public perception of Mr. Singh. A former provincial politician in Ontario, Mr. Singh was little known in the rest of the country. During his early tenure as national party leader he appeared ill informed and gaffe prone.

But two events during the campaign dramatically shifted that perception. He was an adept performer in both French and English language debates. More important was his widely-praised response after it was revealed last month that Mr. Trudeau had worn brownface or blackface on several occasions.

But the aftermath has done more to raise Mr. Singh’s approval ratings than those of his party.

Insisting that she is “not in competition” with Mr. Singh’s New Democrats, Ms. May said they share a common problem: Liberals telling voters that casting a ballot for either of the smaller parties opens the door to a Conservative government, something Mr. Trudeau did on Saturday night in a Toronto suburb.

“The reality of it is the vote is going to be split in so many ways that we’re likely to have a minority Parliament,” she said. “And in a minority Parliament, what you really need are people, basically Greens, who are more committed to getting government action.”



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