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‘An election about nothing’: What to look for in Canada’s first vote since the pandemic

Riding high in the polls and eager to run on a track record of competent pandemic management, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election for Sept. 20. Mr. Trudeau has been ruling with only a plurality of seats since October 2019 and is hoping to win a majority in the House of Commons.

Mr. Trudeau described the election as the most important since 1945, saying on Aug. 15, “Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against Covid-19 and build back better.”

Opponents panned the election call as opportunistic, and Mr. Trudeau has never offered a cogent explanation of his decision. The timing was also questionable: He dropped the writ—a formal notice advising the governor general, the queen’s representative in Canada, to dissolve Parliament—on the same weekend Kabul fell and Canada had been seemingly ineffective in getting Afghan nationals who had supported their troops out of Afghanistan.

Opponents panned the election call as opportunistic, and Mr. Trudeau has never offered a cogent explanation of his decision to call a snap election.

Now Mr. Trudeau is locked in a tight race with the outcome anything but certain. A party that has been coalescing voters vehemently opposed to vaccine mandates and vaccine passports, meanwhile, has surged throughout the campaign and could reach double digit support in the Prairie provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Many Canadians are going to the polls angry and unimpressed and wondering why an election was called in the first place. At the start of the campaign, pollster John Wright found that 60 percent of Canadians opposed the idea of an election during the pandemic. That sentiment has only intensified during the five-week campaign.

Mr. Trudeau “called an election without any apparent agenda,” said Mr. Wright, the executive director of Maru Public Opinion in Toronto. “Mr. Trudeau did not have a ballot question, a raison d’être for going forward and his reason for this election has become the negatives of the other parties.”

Voters have called Canada’s 44th election the “Seinfeld election”—an election about nothing. It has unfolded as a negative and often unedifying affair, marred by disruptive protests at Trudeau rallies, promoted by vaccination mandate opponents, while short on policy and pressing concerns and long on political and personal attacks.

The Liberal Party—led by Mr. Trudeau—unleashed usual attempts at portraying the Conservative Party and its leader, Erin O’Toole, as retrograde—supposedly harboring secret agendas on guns, abortion and two-tier health care or wanting to impose some irresponsible responses to the ongoing pandemic.

Voters have called Canada’s 44th election the “Seinfeld election”—an election about nothing.

And as the campaign closed, Mr. Trudeau pointed to premiers in the Conservative strongholds of Alberta and Saskatchewan who relaxed pandemic rules too early and insisted they would not issue vaccine passports—only to be forced by health crises to reverse those policies—as the future under an O’Toole government.

Mr. O’Toole, 48, released a platform early and even unveiled new plans for initiatives on mental health and animal welfare. He often stayed positive. But he turned to character attacks on Mr. Trudeau after polls showed Conservative support slipping.

“Every Canadian has met a Justin Trudeau in their lives—privileged, entitled and always looking out for number one,” Mr. O’Toole said. “He was looking out for number one when he called this expensive and unnecessary election in the middle of a pandemic. That’s not leadership, that’s self-interest. And it’s Justin Trudeau through and through.”

The prime minister quickly retorted: “I’m not impugning his character…I’m saying he’s wrong about how to ensure jobs and prosperity and a protected country for people in the future.

“I’m going to let him and his proxies and the anti-vaxxer movement and the gun lobby and the anti-choice crowd…continue to attack me, fine. I’m going to stay focused on Canadians.”

Issues like rising real estate prices, the cost of living, climate change and health care rank high for Canadians. But the campaign has proved surprisingly superficial. Campaigners have barely addressed Indigenous reconciliation, an issue causing pain and soul-searching after the discovery of unmarked graves outside residential schools, many of which were operated by the Catholic Church.

“One of the themes in this election for the Conservatives and the N.D.P. is, ‘This is a guy who just talks, but doesn’t deliver.’”

That is the result of a campaign called without a central theme, according to Canadian political analysts, and a driver of public dissatisfaction with politics as usual.

“The two main parties have been in mutually assured destruction mode since about halfway through this campaign,”said Jamie Ellerton, a principal at Conaptus, a communications consultancy.

“Canadians look like they’re going to send a minority Parliament because they at large don’t really agree on a path forward or who should lead it and so you’ve seen the political attacks, the opposition research drops, biting at each other’s ankles hoping it takes down their opponents.”

Mr. Ellerton continued, “People are going to vote because they have to. No one is walking into a ballot box on Monday feeling great about the state of Canada and its prospects under the leadership of who they’re voting for.”

Polls put the Liberals in a dead heat with the Conservatives. Both parties are attracting between 30 percent and 33 percent. Prediction models—in Canada electors pick a member of Parliament and the party winning the most seats usually forms government—show the Liberals leading due to having a more efficient vote and the Conservatives winning lopsided races in Alberta.

The models show little change in the seat count when compared with the last election in 2019.

The New Democratic Party, which leans to the left of the centrist Liberals, is polling around 20 percent and projected to gain seats in Parliament. Leader Jagmeet Singh, 42, suave and well-spoken and a member of the Sikh faith, is the only federal party leader with a net-positive approval rating. But his party often loses votes to the Liberals as progressives, worried about the Conservatives coming close to power, strategically vote Liberal.

Emerging on Mr. O’Toole’s right flank is the People’s Party of Canada, its campaign rallies often unfold as protests against pandemic restrictions and voice Covid-19 conspiracy theories.

Mr. Singh is urging supporters to resist calls from the Liberals not to split the progressive vote. He has often targeted Mr. Trudeau. In the lone English-language debate of the campaign, he attacked Mr. Trudeau on climate policy, arguing: “You had six years, and you’ve got the worst track record in all the G7. How can I trust you?”

Mr. Trudeau’ has admonished Canada’s progressives not to end up electing Conservative candidates by voting N.D.P., but how they will respond to that demand this time remains to be seen.

“That kind of message appeals less and less the more you use it and the longer you’re in government,” said David Cournoyer, Edmonton-based host of the Daveberta Podcast on Alberta politics.

“There’s no doubt this version of the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau is more progressive than previous versions…. But they’ve made a lot of promises that they haven’t implemented and that they’ve walked away from,” like the party’s pledge to overhaul the election system, he said.

Mr. Trudeau battled accusations of inauthenticity long before the 2021 election—especially on women’s issues after the acrimonious departures of high-profile female members of his government.

“I do not believe that Mr. Trudeau is a real feminist,” Green Party leader Annamie Paul said during the English-language debate. “A feminist doesn’t continue to push strong women out of his party when they are just seeking to serve.”

Mr. Trudeau responded, “I won’t take lessons on caucus management from you,” a reference to the Greens’ infighting, which made the party mostly irrelevant in 2021.

Mr. O’Toole lacks Mr. Trudeau’s matinee looks, but he can be charismatic. He has promised to make the Conservative Party of Canada more moderate and mainstream.

In 2015 Mr. Trudeau ran on positive change, speaking of “sunny ways” and championing progressive ideas on gender equality, Indigenous reconciliation and climate change. This time his opponents accuse him of being long on ambition and rhetoric and short on consistency or actual results.

“One of the themes in this election for the Conservatives and the N.D.P. is, ‘This is a guy who just talks, but doesn’t deliver,’” Mr. Wright said.

“There’s this built-in hypocrisy on the view of Justin Trudeau,” he added. “The Liberals have slid in popular support because of brand Trudeau and the cynicism about it.”

Mr. O’Toole lacks Mr. Trudeau’s matinee looks, but he can be charismatic. He has promised to make the Conservative Party of Canada more moderate and mainstream. He speaks of building a big tent, declaring himself pro-choice, pro-worker in industrial relations and in favor of vaccination mandate policies little different from those supported by Liberals.

A former air force aviator and lawyer, the smooth-talking O’Toole has improved on issues such as preferred prime minister and overall approval, though Mr. Wright notes, “The Conservatives have not increased in their vote. It’s that Mr. Trudeau made it look like they had momentum by sliding down toward them.”

Mr. O’Toole has run a risk-averse campaign but has yet to seal the deal. Analysts attribute that to his difficulties of having to appeal to both a right flank drifting further right and centrists reticent of abandoning the Liberals.

“He has the challenge of growing the base…getting people to look at the Conservative Party,” said Mr. Ellerton, who has worked for the Conservatives federally and in Ontario. “Part of that is modernizing and getting with the times and aligning themselves where the vast majority of Canadians are on key issues…social issues being one of them, climate change being another.”

Emerging on Mr. O’Toole’s right flank as a wild card in the election is the People’s Party of Canada, which has attracted large crowds to campaign rallies that often unfold as protests against pandemic restrictions and voice Covid-19 conspiracy theories.

Leader Maxime Bernier, a libertarian-leaning, former Conservative cabinet minister and leadership candidate, rails against vaccine mandates and vaccine passports. He controversially invokes the John F. Kennedy inaugural address: “Only few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its maximum hour of danger. You are that generation.”

Polls suggest as much as 5 percent to 10 percent support for Mr. Bernier and his P.P.C., which could bleed support from the Conservative Party and help the Liberals retain power. A worried Mr. O’Toole on Sept. 17 said that while there are other parties, only one has a chance to defeat Mr. Trudeau—the Conservatives.

Analysts see Mr. Bernier as leveraging the anti-vaccine movement rather than leading it. But the anger is real in a country where 69 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

“There is a low-level road rage in this country” from months of living under Covid-19 restrictions, Mr. Wright said. That rage, he added, exists in concentrated form in the emerging P.P.C.

With reporting from The Associated Press

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