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Canadian elections: who is running and what are the main issues?

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Via Financial Times

After four years in power in Canada, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party is in a much tougher race for re-election than anyone expected a year ago.

As Canadians prepare to cast their ballots on Monday, here is what you need to know about how the country’s election process works, who is in the running and the issues that could decide whether Mr Trudeau will keep his job as prime minister.

What’s the election about?

Some cynics have dubbed this a Seinfeld election, meaning it is about nothing. The main parties have offered little in the way of bold new visions for Canada, and the news cycle has instead been dominated by minor scandals, such as Mr Trudeau’s blackface photos, inconsistencies in the resume of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and the revelation that Mr Scheer holds dual American citizenship.

At its core, the campaign is a referendum on Mr Trudeau’s first-term record, and whether his accomplishments — such as enacting a national carbon tax, overseeing a relatively strong economy and successfully managing the trade relationship with the US — outweigh broken promises and controversies such as the allegation of political interference in the corruption case of SNC-Lavalin or his perceived betrayal of the environmental movement by approving the Trans Mountain pipeline project.

Pedestrians pass in front of the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. headquarters in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. SNC-Lavalin said it failed to reach an agreement with a client in a dispute over a mining project in Latin America, slashing its profit forecast by more than 40 percent for the year and putting its shares on track for the lowest close in a almost a decade. Photographer: Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg
Engineering company SNC-Lavalin has been at the centre of one of the biggest controversies of Mr Trudeau’s premiership © Bloomberg

Who are the main players?

Canada has 21 registered political parties at the federal level, but most are on the fringe — when parliament dissolved last month only three parties held official status, meaning they had at least 12 members in parliament: the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democratic party. With six parties in play this election, and Liberals and Conservatives essentially tied, it matters a lot how the rest of them fare.

Party leaders

Justin Trudeau, Liberal

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks during the Federal leaders French language debate in Gatineau, Quebec, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)
© AP

As the son of Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s third-longest serving prime minister, Justin Trudeau, 47, ended nearly a decade of Conservative rule in 2015, campaigning on themes of hope and change and a promise to do politics differently. After a honeymoon in which Mr Trudeau’s daily choice of colourful socks received an inordinate amount of press attention, the reality of governing a federation with competing regional demands took its toll. His own actions have not always helped.

Canada’s parliamentary ethics commissioner twice ruled Mr Trudeau broke conflict of interest rules, first by accepting a holiday in the Bahamas from the Aga Khan and then by improperly trying to pressure the then attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to help SNC-Lavalin, a large Quebec engineering company, avoid corruption charges.

While Liberal support has recovered in the wake of the SNC controversy, Mr Trudeau has failed to inspire the same level of enthusiasm among progressive voters as he did in 2015. He initially seemed content to keep a low profile during the campaign and avoided interactions with his rivals — Mr Trudeau refused to attend all but one English-language debate set up by a commission that his government created. That strategy was mostly working, until the photos and video of Mr Trudeau in blackface and wearing mock turbans and afro wigs came to light last month. That scandal, however, didn’t seem to cost Mr Trudeau in the polls.

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With promises of tax cuts, increased spending on healthcare, support for first-time homebuyers and higher child benefits all adding up to more years of deficits, the Liberal platform book is far from a change document. Mr Trudeau faces the real prospect of losing his government’s majority in the House of Commons. As one Canadian pundit put it, Trudeaumania has become Trudeau-meh-nia.

Andrew Scheer, Conservative

Leader of Canada's Conservatives Andrew Scheer campaigns for the upcoming election, in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada October 15, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio
© Reuters

Since winning the leadership of the party in 2017 after serving as Speaker of the House of Commons when the Conservatives held power, Andrew Scheer, 40, has struggled to define himself for Canadian voters. Mr Trudeau has portrayed Mr Scheer as an arch-social-conservative who wants to slash spending on social services and panders to xenophobes and white supremacists — though there has been noticeably less of that since Mr Trudeau’s blackface photos emerged.

Mr Scheer has sought to counter Liberal attacks by declaring “there is absolutely no room” in Canada for “intolerance, racism and extremism”. While Mr Scheer has portrayed himself as a fiscal conservative with a pledge to return the federal government to a balanced budget within five years (the deficit in fiscal 2018-2019 was $14bn) he has also committed to billions in tax cuts and tens of billions in new spending. He has also pledged to scrap the Trudeau government’s national carbon tax.

Mr Scheer’s voter base is older and turns out reliably on election days. His best hope of forming a government would be for disillusioned Liberal supporters to either stay home or switch their vote to one of the other progressive parties.

Jagmeet Singh, New Democratic

New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh attends a news conference after the French language federal election debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada October 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
© Reuters

In choosing the charismatic and sharply dressed Jagmeet Singh, 40, as its leader in 2017, the left-leaning New Democratic party (NDP) hopes to challenge the more centrist Liberals by fighting celebrity with celebrity. As the first non-white federal party leader, the Sikh politician was also a bold choice going into this campaign because of the party’s need to hold on to its seats in Quebec, a province where the vast majority of voters support new provincial legislation that bans Quebec civil servants from wearing religious symbols, such as turbans.

A former provincial politician from Ontario, Mr Singh seemed out of his depth in federal politics until quite recently, as he struggled to grasp important files and oversaw a collapse in party fundraising. Recently, however, Mr Singh has emerged as the most dynamic leader on the campaign trail. He has repeatedly won accolades for how he has handled incidents of bigotry since becoming leader, and has allowed his charisma to shine through in debates — when Mr Trudeau and Mr Scheer began shouting over each other at one point, Mr Singh drew laughs from the audience when he interjected to say, “You do not have to choose between Mr Delay and Mr Deny” — a reference to their climate change policies — “there is another option”.

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The outsiders

Bloomberg/Reuters/AFP/FT Composite
Maxime Bernier, Yves-Francois Blanchet and Elizabeth May

As the longstanding face of the Greens in Canada, Elizabeth May, 65, (above right) is hoping a wave of Green party support at the provincial level translates into more MPs in Ottawa, primarily at the expense of both the Liberals and the NDP.

On the right, Maxime Bernier, 56, (above left) was best known as a prominent cabinet minister in the former Conservative government who left confidential documents at the home of a girlfriend who had ties to a biker gang. As leader of the upstart People’s Party of Canada, an anti-immigration, anti-deficit and anti-corporate welfare party, he could play spoiler to the Conservatives’ Mr Scheer by siphoning off right-leaning voters, even though his party is polling at less than 3 per cent nationally.

The Bloc Québécois, a federal party dedicated to Quebec nationalism, had been on a long slide into irrelevance as the French-speaking province’s interest in separatism petered out. However, with Yves-François Blanchet, 54 (centre), at the helm since January, the Bloc has gained steam in recent weeks with its strong support for Quebec’s secularist legislation and progressive stance on issues such as climate change. With 23 per cent of federal ridings located in Quebec, a strong showing by the Bloc on election day could guarantee no party wins a majority.

How do Canadian federal elections work?

Canada’s parliamentary democracy is based on the UK’s Westminster system. The country is divided into 338 electoral districts, known as ridings, each of which sends one elected member to the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the federal parliament in Ottawa. Elections in Canada are decided by the first-past-the-post system — whichever candidate gets the most votes in a riding, wins that seat.

A candidate can win without an absolute majority of the votes. Likewise, a party can form a majority government by winning at least 170 seats, even if it draws less than half the votes. In 2015 the Liberals won a majority with 39.5 per cent of the vote. The leader of the winning party becomes prime minister.

Canada is a large country, spanning six time zones. In the past, the heavy concentration of ridings in the populous central-Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec meant elections were often decided before polls closed in British Columbia on the west coast. Now, polling stations in each timezone remain open for 12 hours, but are staggered so the majority of results are available at roughly the same time.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by WARREN TODA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10441163n) Liberal Party supporters wait for Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to arrive for a political leaders debate in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, 10 October 2019. Canadians will vote in the country's 43rd general election on 21 October 2019. Canadian federal leaders attend debate ahead of election, Gatineau, Canada - 10 Oct 2019
Liberal party supporters hold placards of party leader Mr Trudeau in Gaitneau, Quebec, earlier this month © epa

What if there is no majority?

If no party wins at least 170 seats in the Commons, there will be a minority government. Canada’s governor-general — the Queen’s representative in the North American country — will ask the leader of the party that receives the most votes to present a “speech from the throne” laying out plans and priorities. Throne speeches are considered confidence votes. If all goes well, the new government puts forth a budget.

But even if the Conservative party wins more seats, the Liberals, as the party in power, technically gets the first chance to form a government and try to win the confidence of the House of Commons. That would be extremely rare, however. At the federal level an incumbent government has not tried to hold on to power without winning the most seats since 1925, though Mr Trudeau has not explicitly ruled out the idea.

There are multiple scenarios for how a minority government might come together, with the four smaller parties holding the balance of power — in particular the left-leaning New Democratic party, a presumed dance partner for the Liberals, and Quebec’s separatist Bloc Québécois, the likely key to a Conservative minority government. All come with a list of conditions that will make it difficult for the governing party to accomplish much, and the result would likely be gridlock, inter-regional tensions and another imminent election.

Leader of Canada's Conservatives Andrew Scheer campaigns for the upcoming election in Brampton, Ontario, Canada October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio
Mr Scheer, leader of Canada’s Conservative party, poses with supporters in Brampton, Ontario, last week © Reuters

Who can vote?

Any Canadian citizen aged 18 and over may vote. This year, for the first time, thousands of Canadian expatriates who have lived abroad for more than five years will be able to vote, after the five-year limit was scrapped. The Canadian Expat Association, an advocacy group, estimates that between 1.5m and 1.8m Canadians living abroad will be eligible to vote, up from 1m in 2015.

New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh greets supporters as he arrives for a French language federal election debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada October 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Mr Singh, leader of the New Democratic party, stops to greet voters in Gatineau © Reuters

What are the polls saying?

The Liberals and Conservatives had been neck-and-neck at around 33 per cent each in terms of vote count since the summer, but because the Liberals were doing well around urban areas like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver they were projected to win more seats. Just last month 338Canada, a poll aggregator, gave the Liberals a 63 per cent chance of winning a second majority.

However, in the final weeks of the campaign both the Bloc Québécois and NDP have seen their support surge, which has hit both the Liberals and Conservatives, with Mr Trudeau taking the most damage. The odds of a Liberal majority have fallen to 21 per cent. The odds favour Mr Trudeau to win more seats in a minority scenario but only barely — 38.6 per cent for Mr Trudeau versus 37.2 per cent for Mr Scheer.

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