Did Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau make a mistake calling for a snap election?

Still smiling.
Still smiling.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Osorio
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Canadians are going to the polls today in an election that didn’t have to happen.

The next federal vote was scheduled for 2023. Instead, prime minister and Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau is facing a serious challenge to his job this evening because of what may have been a huge miscalculation: He called a snap election six weeks ago, forcing voters to choose between giving him another four years or replacing him with Erin O’Toole, an attorney who leads the Conservative opposition.

Ostensibly, Trudeau’s goal was to give Canadians a say in “how to end” the pandemic. Instead, he may have invited his own political demise.

Is it a power grab?

Trudeau won a minority government in Canada’s multi-party parliament in 2019. Critics believe the current election is all about the desire for an upgrade. Trudeau wants to amass more power in Ottawa by forming a majority government. If his party wins enough parliamentary seats to do that, it could more easily move forward with plans to expand government spending in support of jobs, healthcare, and to battle climate change. (Its leader would also face less scrutiny from parliamentary committees.)

Trudeau saw an election victory in his future when he took this gamble, believing Canadians would reward him for his relatively deft handling of the pandemic, as the AP reports. Canada has one of the highest vaccination rates among wealthy countries and it has seen fewer deaths per capita than other nations. The Liberals have also spent billions to support businesses and workers to keep the economy from collapsing during the crisis.

Nevertheless, his election call was immediately panned as a self-serving, attention-seeking waste of time and money as the country headed into a fourth wave.

Since then, the polls have reflected a less optimistic picture of the Liberal’s chances. In August, O’Toole sat firmly in second place behind Trudeau in approval ratings. But the conservatives have caught up and are now tied with the Liberals in election forecasts, which showed both parties winning around 31% of the vote on election day.

The left-leaning NDP party, led by lawyer and human rights activist Jagmeet Singh, has maintained a third-place spot and is estimated to attract 20% of the vote. The Bloc Quebecois and the populist, anti-immigration, anti-vaccine passport People’s Party of Canada are polling at around 7% each, while the Green party is in last place with a support rate of 3.5%.

As recently as last week, it appeared that Trudeau was likely to go back to Ottawa as the head of yet another minority or coalition government. Astonishingly, it’s now possible that he won’t even accomplish that.

“Trudeau made an incredibly stupid error in judgment,”  calling this election, Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, told the Associated Press.

The rise of disturbing anti-vaccine mandate protests

Trudeau may have been hoping to be rewarded for his leadership over the past six years, but he has since shifted the focus of his messages, calling the election a choice and not a referendum.

What happened? For one thing, the timing and assumed motivation for the election has irritated voters across the political spectrum. From the left, voters also say they have grown tired of watching Trudeau appeal to progressives rhetorically—and with his sartorial statements—without introducing meaningful economic, cultural, or environmental change. Meanwhile, O’Toole has moved the Conservative position toward the center in a bid to attract voters discouraged by Trudeau’s leadership.

From the outset of the short campaign, Trudeau has used vaccine mandates as a wedge issue. He has promised to introduce mandatory vaccinations for anyone traveling on planes and trains domestically and made inoculation necessary for federal workers. Although O’Toole says that he encourages vaccination, he does not believe in mandates for travel or workplaces.

“He’s more interested in standing up for the rights of anti-vaxxers within his own party than he is in standing up for people who have done the right things and want to get back to normal,” Trudeau said in a recent campaign speech in Ontario.

Surveys show that a strong majority of Canadians (80%) are in favor of vaccine passports to use public transportation and enter businesses; the same majority agrees with mandates for federal workers, teachers, and healthcare workers. However, a fraction of those who disagree have in recent weeks gathered outside hospitals for rallies decrying pandemic measures, including vaccine passports, often near entrances used by vulnerable patients seeking cancer treatments and other forms of healthcare.

Hecklers who oppose lockdowns and vaccine passports have also littered Trudeau’s campaign trail, in one case throwing stones at the prime minister.

Some of these people have called themselves “patriots,” leading to debates about whether US-style political extremism has infiltrated Canadian political culture, or at least unleashed a dark force that had been less vocal until now. Either way, the somewhat libertarian People’s party, is suddenly looking a little less fringey. It has managed to build some momentum in the polls as some die-hard conservatives lost faith in O’Toole.

How rising inflation and the high cost of living may impact Canada’s election results

Beyond vaccination rules, the hot-button topics that have driven election debates include the country’s history of abusing indigenous people; systemic racism that has held back indigenous and other people of color; fixing the country’s long-term care system by setting national standards and possibly banning private companies from running nursing homes; and gun control measures.

For voters, however, the high cost of living has emerged as the primary concern across a wide swath of demographic groups. Housing costs, in particular, have soared: the average price of a home ( $730,000 in Canadian dollars, or about US $575,000) is now 50% higher than it was five years ago, the Wall Street Journal reports, and prices have risen by 20% in the last year alone, placing ownership out of reach for middle-class Canadians. Meanwhile, lower-income Canadians are experiencing profound precarity.

Inflation rose to 4.1% last month, its highest rate in 18 years, driven by the costs of gasoline and housing, and other big-ticket items. Economists have called it a transitory inflation shock linked to reopenings and increased travel. But O’Toole and the Conservatives have leveraged the high number to claim the Liberals haven’t done enough to control prices and watch out for everyday Canadians.

Results for the election may be clear tonight or could arrive later this week since a number of Canadians chose to vote by mail as a Covid precaution. Soon it will be obvious whether Trudeau’s decision to act on his ambitions was ingenious or fatally misplaced.