Canadian electoral law requires that a federal election be held on the third Monday in October of the fourth year following the previous election. It does, however, allow for an early election to be called if the Prime Minister convinces the Governor General to dissolve Parliament. This is precisely what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did on August 15, 2021, by asking Governor Mary Simon to dissolve Parliament, thereby launching the campaign for the 44th Canadian federal election.
Elections two years ahead of schedule
In Canada, calling an early election always leads to debates about the why. While these debates usually don't last long and give way to the real issues of the election campaign, the context of this election is different, and in times of pandemic, Justin Trudeau's decision was followed by an additional layer of criticism. The Prime Minister was accused of selfishness by the opposition parties, denouncing an unnecessary and risky election on the eve of a fourth pandemic wave. No other party, nor many citizens, wanted the campaign to be called at the same time that the Chief Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said the country had entered the fourth wave of COVID-19.
Yet, this context may be precisely one of the reasons for Trudeau's decision. According to several Canadian media outlets, his chances of being re-elected now were much better than six months or two years later, given the success of the vaccine campaign and the implementation of support measures for citizens and businesses. According to political scientist Stéphanie Chouinard, the Liberals were counting on the fact that citizens remember the almost normal summer they just had, and that access to the vaccine became easy fairly quickly. In fact, Canadians were quite satisfied with the Liberal Party's handling of the crisis, and even considered it to be the best party to manage the post-COVID era.
The Prime Minister himself explained his decision by pointing to the "obstructionism" that was taking place in Parliament, criticising the tactics used to prevent him from adopting his agenda, as well as highlighting the historic nature of the situation, in which he believes that citizens have a say.
Another reason for the early election, not explicitly stated by Trudeau but obvious to the media and opposition parties, is his desire to be back at the head of a majority government. While he won 184 seats in Parliament in the 2015 election, the Prime Minister had only 157 seats in the 2019 election, and 155 when Parliament was dissolved in 2021. Then in a strong position in the polls (35 percent for the Liberals, 30 percent for the Conservatives as of August 16), Trudeau was not hoping to win a big majority, but rather to gain a few seats in selected provinces - for example, five or six seats in Quebec, a few in Ontario, or possibly one in Alberta - as evidenced by his pre-election travels.
The 36-day campaign period, the minimum required by election law, also appears to be part of the Liberal strategy. By launching the campaign in mid-August, when many Canadians are still on vacation and his opponent, Erin O'Toole, was still relatively unknown to the public, Trudeau may have thought that he could increase his chances of winning a majority. However, citizens seem to have followed the campaign quite closely.
A losing bet for the Liberals?
The results, which nearly replicated those of 2019, led many to describe this election as a "waste of resources" or as a "self-serving gamble" of a Prime Minister seeking a majority at all costs. Indeed, although the Liberals were re-elected, they only managed to win in 159 districts, Trudeau failed to win the popular vote, and the Canadian political map remained largely unchanged. However, a regionalization of the electorate was observed, reflecting the different economic bases of the various regions. The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, for example, are based on an extraction economy, which is in crisis with the development of the climate crisis, and its populations are heavily dependent on this economic model. These populations were mobilized by conservative parties, which resulted in a massive vote for CPC candidates.
Some analysts also point to a crisis for Erin O'Toole, who tried to refocus the party on issues such as abortion, guns, and greenhouse gas reduction, thereby distancing himself from the base of his electorate. This crisis seems to have been fertile ground for far-right parties: the People's Party led by Maxime Bernier, which capitalized on the anti-vax protests, went from 1.6 percent in 2019 to almost five percent in 2021.
In short, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be able to form a government but will be forced to deal with the small parties on which his political future will depend, which is precisely what he wanted to avoid. But, overall, while the Canadian Liberal Party may have been weakened by the election, the refusal of the opposition parties to go back to the drawing board could guarantee its survival. However, according to some, it will have to reorganize itself, or even change its leader for the next election.
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