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Canada’s Social Democrats Could Make Big Gains in a Snap Election

Justin Trudeau is widely expected to call a snap election. With the Tories and Greens in disarray, the NDP is well-positioned to make gains — if it runs an effective and unapologetically populist campaign.

Buoyed by the popularity of party leader Jagmeet Singh, Canada's New Democratic Party (NDP) is well-positioned to win parliamentary seats in the upcoming snap election. (Don MacKinnon / AFP via Getty Images)

It’s unclear how many Canadians realize it, but, barring something completely unanticipated, an election call is widely expected as early as this Sunday, meaning that Canadians will almost certainly elect a new parliament sometime next month. Officially, prime minister Justin Trudeau can be expected to cite unspecified dysfunction and the need for a working majority as his reasons for going to the polls. Unofficially, this bunk rationale will be a lazy cover for what all but the most credulous Liberal partisans already understand: that the governing party sees the current moment as its best available opportunity for electoral gain and has decided to roll the dice.

Over the past week, some pundits have begun to wonder about the wisdom of such a move, an analysis that, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem entirely misplaced. Among other things, Canada’s chief public health officer has issued warnings about the possibility of a new, Delta variant–driven wave of COVID cases. According to recent polling, a solid majority of Canadians seem hostile or at least unenthusiastic about the possibility of an election — an environment that hardly looks ripe for a big swing to the Liberals.

A week or two into the campaign, of course, it may or may not matter. What can safely be said is that the state of play in Canadian politics makes the election’s outcome anything but a foregone conclusion. Though paltry in length compared with their American equivalents, federal elections in Canada can be prone to tremendous volatility, and the current landscape — though superficially familiar — looks somewhat different from any in recent memory.

Chief among the reasons is the real, and potentially historic, weakness of the Conservative Party and its incandescently mediocre leader Erin O’Toole. Elected during COVID and on the job for less than a year, O’Toole has struggled to make any real impression on the Canadian electorate amid rumblings of deep fractures within the party he leads. Though his own blandness certainly hasn’t helped things, the truth is that Canada’s right-wing coalition is a difficult one to hold together (having come about thanks to the 2003 merger of the old Progressive Conservative Party and the decidedly more conservative Canadian Alliance). With most national poll numbers ranging between 25 and 30 percent and the lowest personal approval ratings of any federal leader, O’Toole will begin the campaign on course for his party’s worst result since 2004.

Depending on where you look, the Liberals currently sit somewhere in the mid-to-high 30s (just outside the vote share traditionally required for a majority) with the social democrat New Democratic Party (NDP) polling around 20 percent (a greater share than it’s secured in all but two elections since its creation in 1961). Buoyed by the personal popularity of its leader, Jagmeet Singh, who currently leads in approval ratings across all age groups, it’s as favorable a dynamic as the NDP generally sees ahead of election time. The key challenge for NDP strategists and organizers, as ever, will be overcoming the standard Liberal campaign playbook, which is often devastatingly effective at winning soft support from progressive voters by fearmongering about the possibility of another Conservative government. But here, weak Tory numbers will help the NDP, as will the absence of Donald Trump from the White House (Republican presidents historically being an asset to Liberal messaging).

Nonetheless, if it hopes to maximize gains, the NDP must champion its social-democratic agenda loudly and unapologetically — reaching beyond the hypocrisies and broken promises of the governing Liberals and articulating a clear alternative to their duplicitous centrism. From wealth and pandemic profit taxes to socialized drug coverage, key planks of the NDP program are as urgent as they are popular. With an effective campaign drawing inspiration from its radical and populist roots, the party may have its best opportunity in years to make them a reality.