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Justin Trudeau called for Oct. 21 elections in Canada. He faces a tough race.

Here’s what you need to know.

- September 11, 2019

It has been almost four years since Justin Trudeau scored a come-from-behind win in the 2015 Canadian federal election. Voters in the United States’ northern neighbor will be going to the polls on Oct. 21 to deliver a verdict on how Trudeau has governed. With the election fast approaching, I contacted Tyler Kustra, a former economic adviser to the Canadian Parliament and research fellow at the University of Manitoba, to get the latest on the race.

Joshua Tucker: What’s happened since the last election?

Tyler Kustra: Trudeau rode a rainbow of optimism into the prime minister’s office four years ago promising Canadians “sunny ways” and a host of policy changes, from legalizing marijuana to reforming the electoral system. He succeeded on the first. Marijuana, rebranded as cannabis, is now legal from coast to coast. But he backtracked on electoral reform after the changes threatened to hurt his Liberal Party in the next election. He angered the resource sector by imposing a carbon tax and environmentalists by using public funds to purchase a partially constructed oil pipeline and vowing to finish the project. Meanwhile, his sunny-ways mantra evaporated in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, when Trudeau and his advisers fired the attorney general after she refused to interfere in the corruption prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a politically connected engineering and construction company. As a result of the public backlash, Trudeau’s right-hand man, Gerry Butts, resigned.

JT: Who is Trudeau up against?

TK: After losing power to Trudeau, the Conservative Party began searching for a new leader. What began as a race with 16 candidates came down to just two: former speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer vs. former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier. Bernier ran as a libertarian promising to, among other things, remove government quotas on milk, eggs and poultry production. The quotas, which raise the cost of food, increase farmers’ profits at the expense of consumers. Scheer, with support from farmers in key constituencies, promised to retain the system. At the end of 13 rounds of voting, Scheer beat Bernier by less than one percentage point and will be leading the Conservatives into the election.

JT: What happened to Bernier?

TK: He left his libertarian streak behind and quit the Conservatives last year to form his own People’s Party of Canada. The party is the closest thing Canada has seen to the populist movement that has swept other Western democracies, promising to cut immigration by more than half and railing against the so-called globalist agenda. But unlike populists elsewhere, Bernier has been unable to gain significant support, and the People’s Party typically polls no higher than the margin of error, suggesting that its true support could be zero.

JT: What about the other parties?

TK: Jagmeet Singh won the New Democratic Party leadership in 2017. Singh struggled to stand out in the race until a deranged heckler accused Singh — a Sikh who wears a turban as a requirement of his faith — of planning to impose Islamic law. The video went viral, and anger over the heckler’s bigotry propelled Singh to victory. Since then, however, Singh has struggled to bring different factions of his party together, and the party’s polling numbers are only a fraction of where they were four years ago.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth May will be leading the Green Party into its fourth election, and Yves-François Blanchet will lead the Quebec separatists in the Bloc Québécois.

JT: Where do the polls stand?

TK: Liberal dreams of coasting to an easy victory were dashed when the SNC-Lavalin scandal broke in February. At that point, the Conservatives took the lead in the national numbers. But as the scandal faded from memory, the polls narrowed, and the Conservatives and the Liberals are now tied at 33.8 percent.

Meanwhile, Trudeau is either so desperate for Butts’s help or so sanguine about the scandal that he has rehired Butts to work on the campaign. Expect the other parties to bring this up at every available opportunity.

However, the national polls obscure the fact that under Canada’s system of government, voters in each of the country’s 338 electoral districts — known as ridings — vote for a member of Parliament (MP). The party that can command the confidence of the majority of members forms the government, and its leader becomes prime minister.

As a result, this isn’t one large election but 338 small ones where individual idiosyncrasies matter. The race is tight enough that the distribution of votes across ridings will play a key role, as will the smaller parties. Will the Liberal’s progressive and environmentalist voters leave for the Greens or the New Democrats, allowing a Conservative candidate to sneak up the middle and claim a seat? Will the People’s Party of Canada bleed just enough support from the Conservatives to allow Liberal victories in key races?

JT: Once all is said and done, who is likely to be able to form a government?

TK: Modeling these complex multi-way races is inherently difficult, and any predictions should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, Éric Grenier of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation suggests there is a 11 percent chance of the Conservatives winning an outright majority of seats and a 24 percent chance of the Conservatives winning a plurality but not a majority. Conversely, there is a 41 percent chance of the Liberals winning a majority and 24 percent chance of them getting a plurality but not a majority.

In the event that no party has a majority of MPs, the smaller parties become kingmakers. Singh has ruled out supporting the Conservatives if the New Democrats holds the balance of power, and the People’s Party was born out of Bernier’s spite after losing to Scheer — so the Liberals have a slight advantage if no party wins a majority in the Commons. Meanwhile, the Greens say that they could support any party if its environmental policy is right, but at the moment no party has earned the Greens’ support.

JT: What will happen to Trudeau and Sheer?

TK: If the Liberals win a majority, Trudeau is safe. Otherwise his days are numbered. The Liberals reasonably expected to get two majority mandates out of Trudeau, and they will likely blame him, and his conduct in the SNC-Lavalin affair, for anything less. The Conservatives also thought that they would be out of power for two election cycles, and so any performance by Scheer will meet or beat expectations.