Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election
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Ottawa (AFP) –
Voters lined up Monday to cast ballots in Canadian elections that are headed for a photo finish, with liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's bid for a third term threatened by rookie conservative leader Erin O'Toole's strong challenge.
Trudeau called the snap election hoping to parlay a smooth Covid-19 vaccine rollout -- among the best in the world -- into a new mandate to steer the nation's pandemic exit, without having to rely on opposition party support to pass his agenda.
But the contest, after a bumpy five weeks of campaigning, appears set for a repeat of the close 2019 general election that resulted in the one-time golden boy of Canadian politics clinging to power, yet losing his majority in parliament.
A sudden surge in Covid-19 cases led by the Delta variant late in the campaign, after the lifting of most public health measures this summer, has also muddied the waters.
Voting across Canada's six time zones started early in the Atlantic island province of Newfoundland and was to wrap up in westernmost British Columbia at 7:00 pm (0200 GMT).
At 49, Trudeau has faced tougher bouts and come out unscathed.
But after six years in power, his administration is showing signs of fatigue, and it's been an uphill battle for him to convince Canadians to stick with his Liberals after falling short of high expectations set in his 2015 landslide win.
- Trudeau 'lied to us' -
Douglas O'Hara, 73, casting a vote in Trudeau's Montreal electoral district of Papineau, told AFP he was "very disappointed" with the prime minister.
Although he believes Trudeau "did a half-decent job" managing the pandemic, he reminded that the leader had pledged not to go to the polls until the outbreak had subsided.
"Then as soon as he gets a chance (when) he thinks he's going to get a majority, he calls an election," O'Hara said. "I really believe he lied to us."
Jennifer Hardy, 38, also expressed disappointment with the incumbent. "I'm actually embarrassed and ashamed because I voted for him last time. I'm here to rectify that. I think he's ruining this country."
Entering the final stretch, the two main political parties that ruled Canada since its 1867 confederation were neck and neck with about 31 percent support each, and four smaller factions nipping at their heels.
An estimated 27 million Canadians are eligible to vote to select 338 members of Parliament. To keep his job, Trudeau's Liberals must win a plurality of seats and take at least 170 for a majority.
Due to the pandemic, a significant number of mail-in ballots (1.2 million) are expected, which could mean the results may not be known Monday evening.
Pollster and former political strategist Tim Powers advised not counting Trudeau out. "I still think Justin Trudeau will win a minority government," he told AFP.
"But is that a win for him?" he added, suggesting Trudeau may be turfed as leader if the Liberals fare poorly at the ballot box.
- 'Anti-vaxxer mobs,' China 'counterstrikes' -
The 36-day campaign saw the contenders spar over climate actions, indigenous reconciliation, affordable housing, Afghanistan, mandatory Covid-19 inoculations and vaccine passports.
Rivals criticized Trudeau for calling the election during a pandemic.
Meanwhile, the 48-year-old O'Toole was knocked for his backing of Alberta and two other Tory-led provinces' loosening of public health restrictions too soon, with Covid outbreaks now forcing their overwhelmed hospitals to fly patients across Canada for care.
At rallies, Trudeau was dogged by what he described as "anti-vaxxer mobs," including one that threw stones at him.
O'Toole, meanwhile, fumbled over gun control and was warned by Beijing, according to Chinese state media, that his proposed hard line on China -- Canada's second-largest trading partner, with whom relations have soured over its detention of two Canadian nationals -- would "invite counterstrikes."
Overall, commented Max Cameron, a professor at the University of British Columbia, "this hasn't been a polarizing election. There's actually a lot of clustering around the middle."
O'Toole, a relative unknown who became Tory leader only last year, tracked his party to the political center, forcing the Liberals to compete for votes on the left with the New Democrats and Greens, as well as the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
The Conservatives, however, also saw their support clawed in the final week by former foreign minister Maxime Bernier's far right People's Party.
© 2021 AFP