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Canada’s Pointless Election Has Weakened Justin Trudeau

In what was supposed to be an easy victory, global liberalism’s would-be savior lost the popular vote for the second time in two years — and now enjoys the slimmest popular mandate of any prime minister in Canadian history.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a Liberal Party election night event in Montreal, Quebec, in the early hours of September 21, 2021. (David Kawai / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Perhaps the most concise and accurate description of last night’s Canadian election is that it was one in which every major party, including the official winner, ultimately lost.

By way of background: enjoying decent poll numbers and expecting to benefit from a rapid increase in COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the summer, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals opted to call a snap federal election last month. As political gambles go, Trudeau’s was a relatively simple one. Amid rumors of deep internal conflict within the Conservative Party and polling that gave him a decent shot at reclaiming the majority he lost in 2019, Canada’s prime minister decided to dissolve parliament and seek a new mandate two years early. Absent from the calculation, apparently, was any perceived need to explain or rationalize the move — and, given its transparent opportunism, the backlash was swift.

Midway through the campaign, the main beneficiary appeared to be the Conservative Party under Erin O’Toole. Triangulating to the center and doing his utmost to sanitize the perpetually noxious Tory brand, O’Toole enjoyed a real if fleeting bump in the polls that momentarily suggested a surprise Conservative victory might be in the cards. The social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), meanwhile, seemed to be enjoying unusually high levels of support and, banking on the personal popularity of its leader, Jagmeet Singh, hoped to make gains after a disappointing finish in 2019.

Though mail-in ballots are still being counted in some districts, the general picture is clear — and ultimately a disappointment for all three of Canada’s national political parties. After five weeks of campaigning and a pandemic election few beyond a handful of Liberal strategists wanted, Canada will have a parliament virtually indistinguishable from the last one — the dynamics that prevailed after 2019 being replicated almost down to the seat.

For the Liberals, the failure is obvious. Trudeau’s coveted majority is nowhere to be found and the globe-spanning buzz that greeted his early years in office is now a distant memory. More to the point: at just over 32 percent of the national popular vote, Trudeau will wield the slimmest mandate of any prime minister in Canadian history (beating his own record from 2019). Having finished several points behind the Tories, there’s even an outside chance dissent from within the Liberal ranks could force him from office before the next federal campaign. In an election that initially seemed his to win, Trudeau proved unable to offer more than his usual soup of triangulating soundbites and buttery-warm rhetoric hinting vaguely at the future. (As one person put it: “What’s more on brand for the Liberal Party than wasting time with an election ‘for progress’ where nothing at all changes and we’re right where we left off?”)

In the short term, however, the Conservative leader may be in more trouble. Having been on the job for just over a year and winning the leadership by pandering to the right, O’Toole essentially bet the house on a high-risk strategy designed to court middle-of-the-road voters and appear as nonthreatening as possible — particularly in the critical (and seat-rich) Greater Toronto Area. As things stand, it appears the Tories will make no inroads there at all, despite winning the national popular vote and briefly surging in the polls.

Though marginally improving on its 2019 results, the NDP cannot claim any great success, either. Narrowly losing its only seat in Atlantic Canada and failing to win back many districts it lost two years ago, it will need big wins in the remaining mail-in ballots to deliver more than a net gain of a single seat or two. Though undoubtedly hurt by the widespread closure of polling stations (ostensibly for public health reasons) and the indefensible cancellation of the campus vote program, the party seemed poised to make greater gains and finds itself in a familiarly disappointing predicament.

What comes next is, as of yet, completely unclear. Canada’s new parliament will look very much like the last one and, as such, could dissolve again soon and prompt yet another federal election. For now, Trudeaumania is clearly over — but Trudeauism seems set to stumble on, albeit in zombified form.