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  20 Sep 2021, 10:57

Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election

   OTTAWA, Sept 20, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - Canadian elections headed for a photo
finish Monday with liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau, who is seeking a
third term, threatened by a strong challenge from rookie conservative leader
Erin O'Toole.

  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 thrown a wrench into the works.

  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.

  "The main ballot box question at the start of this campaign was whether the
Liberals deserved to have a majority government," said Daniel Beland, a
politics professor at McGill University in Montreal.

  "But now the question is whether they deserve to stay in power."

  Going into the final stretch, the two main political parties that ruled
Canada since its 1867 confederation were neck and neck with about 31 percent
of voting intentions each and four smaller factions nipping at their heels.

  Voting across Canada's six time zones was scheduled to start in the
Atlantic island province of Newfoundland at 8:30 am (1100 GMT) and wrap up in
westernmost British Columbia at 7 pm (0200 GMT).

  An estimated 27 million Canadians are eligible to cast a ballot 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 of the election 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' and China 'counterstrikes' -

  The 36-day campaign -- the shortest allowed under Canadian law -- saw the
contenders spar over climate actions, indigenous reconciliation, affordable
housing, the recent Afghanistan crisis, mandatory Covid-19 inoculations and
vaccine passports.

  Rivals criticized Trudeau over the timing of 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-19 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.

  He also received endorsements from former US president Barack Obama and his
former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

  O'Toole, meanwhile, fumbled over gun control and was warned by Beijing,
according to Chinese state media, that his proposed hardline 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."

  "This isn't Republicans versus Democrats south of the border," he said,
referring to the United States.

  "This has been very much a Canadian campaign in which there's a strong
consensus around what are the issues and how they have to be tackled."

  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.

  When the final count is in, said University of Winnipeg professor Felix
Mathieu, "it's unlikely anyone will have obtained a majority."

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