MONTREAL: Canadians went to the polls on Monday (Sep 20) as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared likely to lose his bid for a parliamentary majority after a tough campaign that may have dashed his Liberal Party's hopes for a convincing win.
Trudeau heads a minority government that relies on the support of other parties to pass legislation. With opinion polls last month showing him far ahead, he triggered the vote two years earlier than necessary, saying voters needed to weigh in on his left-of-centre government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as the public's unhappiness about the early call grew, the 49-year-old prime minister saw his lead evaporate. Liberal strategists now concede it will be hard for the party to win a majority of the House of Commons' 338 seats.
Trudeau backs vaccine mandates, while Conservative leader Erin O'Toole, 48, opposes them and prefers a combination of voluntary vaccinations and rapid testing to stop the virus' spread.
"We need clear, strong leadership that is going to continue to unequivocally push vaccines, and that's what we will do. Mr O'Toole, he can't, and he won't," Trudeau told supporters in Niagara Falls, Ontario, on Sunday during a frantic last day that saw him travel 4,500km across Canada.
If Trudeau falls short of a majority, it would represent a defeat that is certain to raise questions about his political future.
The Canadian dollar fell on Monday to a one-month low against its US counterpart and the Toronto stock market posted its biggest decline since January as Canadians went to vote and worries about China roiled global markets.
Trudeau, a charismatic progressive and son of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, swept to power in 2015. But the Liberals dropped to a minority in 2019 after Trudeau was damaged in part by disclosures that he had worn blackface years ago.
A new photograph of Trudeau wearing dark makeup at the same 2001 party emerged on Sunday. A Liberal campaign official said the latest photo was a desperate attempt to smear Trudeau on the eve of the vote.
Polls show the Liberals tied in popular support with the Conservatives, which theoretically gives Trudeau's party an advantage, since Liberal strength tends to coalesce in urban centers that are home to the lion's share of seats.
"There's no world in which this is not tight," a senior Liberal strategist said. "Is a majority possible? Yes. Is it the likeliest scenario? No."
Liberals concede voters might be turned off by having to go to the polls as a new COVID-19 wave hits the country. Low turnout tends to favour the Conservatives.
To complicate matters, both parties face vote splits. The Liberals compete with the left-leaning New Democrats, while the right-wing People's Party of Canada (PPC), which opposes mandatory vaccines, could hurt the Conservatives.
"Justin Trudeau wants you to stay home tomorrow. Justin Trudeau wants you to vote PPC," O'Toole told supporters on Sunday.
Polls in Canada's most-populous regions will close between 9.30pm and 10pm. An early indication of Liberal fortunes will come after 7.30pm EDT, when votes in the four Atlantic provinces are counted. The Liberals hold 27 of the region's 32 seats.
After voting in downtown Montreal, Jonathan Goldbloom and his 95-year-old mother, Sheila Goldbloom, said they supported Trudeau’s handling of the pandemic.
"He showed great leadership on the file and he’s the one who said that everyone needs to get vaccinated. I don’t feel that the Tories have been consistent in that message," Jonathan Goldbloom said, using another term for Conservatives.
Wayne Boone, who was walking over to vote in Ottawa, said he supports O'Toole's Conservatives for their fiscal restraint.
"And I'm not very happy with Pierre Jr - as I call him - Justin Trudeau, because he tends to just spend money that we will never have," Boone said.
Samantha Mills, a Vancouver librarian, said she planned to vote for the New Democrats, saying party leader Jagmeet Singh proved during the debates he could hold Trudeau to account.
"It really felt like it was him (Singh) taking Trudeau to task more than everybody," she said outside a polling station.
The New Democrats could finish third and hold considerable influence in a minority government.
A delay in counting mail-in votes could obscure results in tight races.
Elections Canada will only begin counting on Tuesday the 800,000 mostly mail-in special ballots cast domestically, after they have verified them against in-person votes. In 2019, all special ballots were counted on or before election night.