If the polls are correct, Monday’s election in Canada will bring an end to the tenure of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but it’s likely to be a nail-biter.
In office since 2006, Harper is trying to become the first prime minister since 1908 to be elected to a fourth term, but his Conservative Party trailed the Liberals 37.3 percent to 30.5 percent in a poll taken on Sunday, with the left-wing New Democrat Party in third at 22.1 percent. Harper has been a divisive leader—his critics on the left say he’s more like an American-style right-wing Republican than a traditional more moderate Canadian conservative. But he looked fairly unassailable until a recent economic slump exacerbated by low oil prices and a weakened Canadian dollar. The unexpected triumph of the NDP in provincial elections in Harper’s oil-rich Conservative stronghold of Alberta last May—roughly analogous to the Green Party sweeping the Texas legislature—was a bad sign for the ruling party’s fortunes.
That election should have cemented the ascendancy of the NDP, traditionally a marginal third party, as the new second party in Canadian politics, replacing the Liberals who they now outnumber in Parliament. But the party, led by Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair, has faded down the stretch in these national elections, while the Liberals have surged back under new leader Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau is Canadian political royalty—his father, Pierre, was prime minister in the 1970s and ’80s and was one of the country’s most iconic leaders. The youthful-looking 44-year-old Trudeau, who is hoping to ride a wave of Obama-esque enthusiasm for change into the prime minister’s office, has promised to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending and raise taxes on the wealthy. A majority of Canadians seem to be supporting the message, which Harper has dismissed as “unicorns and rainbows.”
Culture and identity issues have factored heavily in the election as well. One of the unexpected flashpoints of the campaign has been the debate over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the niqab—a full-face covering—while taking their citizenship oath. A federal court ruled in favor of a woman who wanted to wear one earlier this year, but Harper and about 80 percent of Canadian voters are opposed to the practice. NDP leader Mulcair’s strong support for the right to wear the niqab is one factor blamed for his slump in the polls. Trudeau has said he’ll respect the court’s decision but hasn’t taken as strong a stance on the issue. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have attempted to win back votes in Canada’s immigrant communities with targeted ads accusing the Liberals of wanting to open brothels and make it easier to sell marijuana to children.
The death of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose body was photographed after washing up on a Turkish beach in September, turned the refugee crisis into a major election issue—Kurdi’s family wanted to reach Canada. The Conservative government had set a goal of taking in 11,300 refugees by the end of 2018 but has taken in only 2,500 so far. Trudeau has promised to resettle 25,000 Syrians by Jan. 1.
The election could have serious implications for global climate change policy as well, though the issue has not loomed large in the election. Both Trudeau and Mulcair have promised to end the country’s tar sands–enabled, newfound reputation as a climate pariah at the upcoming emissions talks in Paris. Trudeau has vowed to end subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and invest more heavily in green energy. While he supports the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, it’s not the make-or-break issue for him that it was for Harper, who backed a doomed lobbying effort to convince Congress and the Obama administration of the pipeline’s necessity. The Keystone affair actually damaged relations between Canada and the U.S. A Trudeau premiership might improve things, particularly if the newly anti-Keystone Hillary Clinton wins in 2016—though U.S. leaders of either party will be less excited about Trudeau’s opposition to Canadian airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.
So what’s going to happen Monday night? Both Mulcair and Trudeau have ruled out forming a coalition government with Harper, which means the Conservatives have to win an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons for him to stay in power. The most likely scenario according to recent polls is a minority government led by Trudeau and the Liberals with support from other parties. This means the Liberals and the NDP may have to move past a bitter campaign in which both have denigrated the other as insufficiently anti-Harper. A key role in determining who gets to form a government could be played by Canada’s governor general, the normally ceremonial representative of the queen of England in Canada.
Speaking of messy, Harper over the weekend held a rally with Toronto’s disgraced crack-smoking former mayor, Rob Ford, and his slightly more respectable brother Doug in a bid to appeal to “Ford nation,” a still significant contingent of fans of the brothers’ populist conservative message.