MONTREAL, Sep 20 (Reuters) – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could cling to power in Monday’s election, but he is likely to lose his candidacy for a parliamentary majority after a difficult campaign that dashed the hopes of his Liberals in the power of a convincing victory.
Trudeau heads a minority government that relies on the support of other parties to pass laws. With opinion polls last month showing him far ahead of his rivals, the Liberal leader called the vote two years earlier than necessary, saying voters must weigh in on his center-left Liberal government’s handling of the pandemic of COVID-19.
But as the public was unhappy with the anticipated appeal, the 49-year-old prime minister saw his lead evaporate. Liberal strategists now concede that it will be difficult for the party to win a majority of the 338 seats in the House of Commons.
In recent days, Trudeau, whose government has racked up record debt to fight COVID-19, has focused on the need for Canadians to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. He supports vaccination mandates, while Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, 48, opposes the mandates and prefers a combination of voluntary vaccinations and rapid testing to stop the spread of the virus.
“We need clear, strong leadership that will continue to unequivocally promote vaccines, and that is what we will do. Mr. O’Toole, he can’t and he won’t,” Trudeau said to his followers in Niagara Falls, Ontario. on Sunday in a frenzied final day that saw him cover 2,800 miles (4,500 km) across Canada.
If Trudeau does not achieve a majority, it would represent a defeat that is sure to raise questions about his political future.
The Canadian dollar was trading lower against the US greenback, with investors eyeing the election.
Trudeau, a charismatic progressive and son of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, came to power in 2015. But the Liberals were reduced to a minority in 2019 after Trudeau was aggrieved by allegations of interference in a case criminal involving a company in Quebec and by revelations that he had worn blackface in his youth.
Echoes of that campaign reverberated on Sunday when a new photo of Trudeau wearing dark makeup at the same 2001 party emerged. A Liberal campaign official said the latest photo was a desperate attempt to smear Trudeau on the eve of the vote.
Trudeau apologized in 2019 for wearing blackface.
Polls show liberals are bound by popular support for conservatives, which theoretically gives Trudeau’s party an advantage, as liberal force tends to be concentrated in urban centers which have the lion’s share of seats.
“There isn’t a world where it is not tight,” said a senior liberal strategy official. “Is a majority possible? Yes. Is that the most likely scenario? No.”
Liberals admit voters could be put off by having to go to the polls as a new wave of COVID-19 hits the country. Low turnout tends to favor the Conservatives.
To complicate matters, both sides face the prospect of divisions of votes. The Liberals are competing with the left-wing 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. Polling stations in the most populous areas of Canada will close between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. EDT (0130-0200 GMT Tuesday).
O’Toole voted in Bowmanville, Ont., Monday, and Trudeau voted in Montreal.
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 has shown great leadership on the file and it was he who said that everyone should get the vaccine. I don’t think the Conservatives were consistent in this message,” said Jonathan Goldbloom, using another term for conservatives.
Wayne Boone, who was heading for a poll in Ottawa, said he supported the O’Toole Tories over their budget cuts.
“And I’m not very happy with Pierre Jr – as I call him – Justin Trudeau, because he tends to just spend money that we’ll never have,” Boone said.
A first indication of the Liberals’ fortunes will come after 7:30 p.m. EDT (11:30 p.m. GMT), when the votes in the four Atlantic provinces will be counted. The Liberals hold 27 of the 32 seats in that region.
Trudeau has taken a cautious stance in public, avoiding questions about a possible majority.
“I want as many Liberals as possible to be elected across the country because we need a strong government,” he told reporters in Montreal on Sunday. In private, the helpers are less timid.
“You don’t call an election during a pandemic just to get another minority government,” one said.
Elections Canada, which oversees the vote, has so far received nearly 800,000 mail-in votes from Canada, up sharply from the 50,000 mail-in votes received in 2019. Due to the high volume and verification checks required for mail-in votes. votes, the counting of those ballots will not begin until Tuesday, said Elections Canada spokeswoman Natasha Gauthier.
Reporting by Steve Scherer and David Ljunggren; Additional reporting by Tyler Choi, Julie Gordon, Allison Lampert and Rod Nickel; Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Cooney and Paul Simao
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