Trudeau struggling to convince voters of the need for an early election

Liberal Party and Conservatives neck and neck as Canada goes to the polls

 Justin Trudeau:   Even if the Liberal Party clings on to its hold on parliament,  this bruising election campaign has done him no favours. Photograph:  Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images

Justin Trudeau: Even if the Liberal Party clings on to its hold on parliament, this bruising election campaign has done him no favours. Photograph: Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images

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Outside a TV studio in a Vancouver, British Columbia, suburb where prime minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was recording an interview days before the country’s election, a man shouted insults, mostly obscene, about Trudeau and his family while blasting Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It from a stereo on a cart.

Heckling is something Trudeau has always faced, but this time the attacks have new bite.

After six years in office, a prime minister who promised “sunny ways” and presented himself as a new face is now the political establishment, with a track record and missteps for opponents to criticize. Even if the Liberal Party clings on to its hold on parliament, as observers expect, this bruising election campaign has done him no favours.

Ben Chin, the prime minister’s senior adviser, said that no politician could have sustained Trudeau’s initial popularity.

“If you’re in power for six years or five years, you’re going to have more baggage,” Chin said. “You have to make tough decisions that not everybody’s going to agree with.”

For much of his time in office, opposition party leaders have accused Trudeau of putting his personal and political interests before the nation’s good – of which the snap election being held Monday is the most recent example.

They also have had rich material to attack him on over controversies involving a contract for a charity close to his family, and a finding that he broke ethics laws by pressing a minister to help a large Quebec company avoid criminal sanctions.

And for every accomplishment Trudeau cites, his opponents can point to unfulfilled pledges.

Anti-vax protesters have thronged his events, some with signs promoting the far-right People’s Party of Canada, prompting his security detail to increase precautions.

One rally in Ontario was shut down due to safety concerns as protesters significantly outnumbered the polices and, at another rally in the same province, the prime minister was pelted with gravel as he boarded his campaign bus. A local official of the People’s Party later faced charges in that episode of assault with a weapon.

Many achievements

Trudeau has many achievements since 2015 to point to. His government has introduced carbon pricing and other climate measures, legalised cannabis, increased spending for Indigenous issues and made 1,500 models of military-style rifles illegal. A new plan will provide day care for 10 Canadian dollars a day per child.

Although his popularity has diminished, Trudeau’s star power remains. When he dropped by the outdoor terrace of a cafe in Port Coquitlam, an eastern suburb of Vancouver, for elbow bumps, quick chats and selfies with voters, a crowd soon swelled.

“We love you, we love you,” Joy Silver, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher from nearby Coquitlam, told Trudeau.

But, as election day nears, many Canadians are still asking why Trudeau is holding a vote now, two years ahead of schedule, with Covid-19 infections on the rise from the delta variant, taxing hospitals and prompting renewed pandemic restrictions in some provinces or delaying their lifting in others.

Also criticised was the fact that he called the vote the same weekend Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, when Canadian troops were struggling to evacuate Canadians as well as Afghans who had assisted their forces.

“They’ve been struggling with answering that question the whole campaign,” said Gerald Butts, a longtime friend of Trudeau’s and a former top political adviser. “And that’s part of why they’re having trouble getting the message across.”

Trudeau has said he needs to replace his plurality in the House of Commons with a majority to deal with the remainder of the pandemic and the recovery that will follow – although he avoids explicitly saying “majority.” The Liberal Party’s political calculation was that it was best to strike while Canadians still held favourable views about how Trudeau handled pandemic issues, particularly income supports and buying vaccines.

“We’re the party with the experience, the team and the plan to continue delivering real results for Canadians, the party with a real commitment to ending this pandemic,” Trudeau said at a rally in Surrey, another Vancouver suburb, standing in front of campaign signs for candidates from the surrounding area. “Above all, my friends, if you want to end this pandemic for good, go out and vote Liberal.”

During much of the 36-day campaign, the Liberals have been stuck in a statistical tie with the Conservative Party of Canada, led by Erin O’Toole, each holding about 30% of the popular vote. The New Democrats, a left-of-centre party led by Jagmeet Singh, lies well behind at about 20%.

Corruption charges

Some scandals during Trudeau’s tenure have helped the opposition, too. In 2019, Trudeau’s veterans affairs minister, an Indigenous woman, quit amid allegations that when she was justice minister, he and his staff had improperly pressured her to strike a deal that would have allowed a large Canadian corporation to avoid a criminal conviction on corruption charges.

Despite his championing of diversity, it emerged during the 2019 election that Trudeau had worn black face or brown face three times in the past. And last year a charity with deep connections to his family was awarded a no-bid contract to administer a Covid-19 financial assistance plan for students. (The group withdrew, the program was cancelled, and Trudeau was cleared by the federal ethics and conflict of interest commissioner.)

His opponents have also focused on promises they say he has fallen short on, including introducing a national prescription drug program, creating a new electoral structure for Canada, lowering debt relative to the size of the economy, and ending widespread sexual harassment in the military and solitary confinement in federal prisons.

The Center for Public Policy Analysis at Laval University in Quebec City found that Trudeau has fully kept about 45% of his promises, while 27% were partly fulfilled.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.