It was a political calculation. And on Monday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will find out if it succeeded.
When Mr. Trudeau announced a snap election last month — two years ahead of schedule — his aides were apparently hoping that the lift in approval ratings for his handling of the pandemic would translate into a decisive win, giving his Liberal Party the majority in Parliament that it lost in the last election, in 2019.
He characterized the call not as a political gambit, however, but as pivotal moment in the country’s history. In the 36 days that followed, he does not appear to have persuaded many Canadians to see it that way.
Instead, there was continued grumbling about holding an election even as the Delta variant of the coronavirus was straining hospitals in some areas. Mr. Trudeau’s opponents characterized his move as a reckless power grab. Last weekend, Erin O’Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party and his chief rival, even called it “un-Canadian.” If the campaign ultimately holds any distinction, it may be as the most annoying one in recent memory.
Mr. Trudeau argued that, like his predecessors in the aftermath of World War II, he needed a strong mandate from voters to vanquish the pandemic and reset the nation’s economy on path to recovery. While he avoided saying so directly, what the Liberals sought was a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. In the 2019 election, voters denied that to the party, which has meant Mr. Trudeau had to rely on votes from opposition parties to pass legislation.
If final polls prove accurate, Mr. Trudeau will again be denied. The Liberals standings dropped sharply at the start of the campaign, and have remained stuck in a statistical tie with the Conservatives, at about 30 percent each.
“I’m wondering if the Liberals, in their minds, are saying: ‘Dang it, why did we, why did we call it?” said Kimberly Speers, a political scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “If we do end up with another Liberal minority government, how long is it going to last? And then how long is Trudeau going to last?”
Mr. Trudeau first came to power in 2015 by presenting himself as a new voice in politics with a new approach and fresh policies. He started that campaign in third place, behind the incumbent Conservatives and the left-of-center New Democratic Party. His victory was a surprise.
This time, instead of presenting a fresh vision, Mr. Trudeau focused on arguing to voters, explicitly or otherwise, that a return to a Conservative government under Mr. O’Toole would wipe out Liberal achievements in a variety of areas: gun control, gender equity, climate change, child care, poverty reduction and above all, ending the pandemic and getting Canadians vaccinated.
“Mr. O’Toole won’t make sure the traveler sitting beside you and your kids on a train or a plane is vaccinated,” Mr. Trudeau said at a campaign rally in British Columbia last week. “Mr. O’Toole doesn’t lead, he misleads.”
But in Mr. O’Toole, the prime minister encountered a much different opponent than the Conservative leaders of the two previous elections. In a bid to broaden his party’s appeal, Mr. O’Toole, who took over the party about a year ago, produced a 160-page platform that turned its back on many core Conservative positions, like opposition to carbon taxes.
And during the campaign, he even reversed one of his key promises, to repeal Mr. Trudeau’s ban on 1,500 models of assault-style rifles, once it became apparent that it held little appeal to voters who weren’t core Conservative loyalists. He has, however, maintained his opposition to mandatory vaccination and vaccine passports.
“I am a new leader with a new style,” Mr. O’Toole, a former air force helicopter navigator and corporate lawyer from Ontario, said at the outset of the campaign.
Analysts have forecast that even though the candidates are statistically tied, the Liberals’ concentration of support in the most populous Canadian provinces — Ontario and Quebec — suggest that the party will gain the most seats, if not a majority. If that happens, Mr. Trudeau will have put the country through a 600 million Canadian dollar vote to produce a Parliament more or less like the one he dissolved.
Canadians often grumble about federal elections called before schedule, as is the case with Monday’s vote. But usually the complaints die out after the first week of campaigning.
Not this time. With the Delta variant of the coronavirus sweeping many provinces, and their governments restoring restrictions or pausing plans to lift them, questions about the wisdom of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election call are still dominating the race.
“They’ve been struggling with answering that question the whole campaign,” said Gerald Butts, a longtime friend of Mr. Trudeau’s and his former top political adviser. “And that’s part of why they’re having trouble getting the message across.”
While Mr. Trudeau carefully avoids using the word “majority,” there is no doubt that he’s seeking to take back control of the House of Commons, which was denied him in the 2019 vote, when his Liberal Party won only a minority. Since then, he has relied on the ad hoc support of opposition parties to push legislation through, something Mr. Trudeau said led to delays in pandemic measures.
Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, said that this spring the “Covid consensus” among all of the parties in Parliament unraveled.
“We really saw that it was becoming increasingly just not possible to get the business of the country done,” she said last week during a break in her one-person campaign trek around the country. “It was clear to us that it was going to become truly impossible to keep moving in the fall.”
Mr. Trudeau’s opponents don’t buy that, noting that all the major pieces of Mr. Trudeau’s pandemic legislation have passed, though several bills died when Mr. Trudeau adjourned Parliament for the vote. They have relentlessly denounced his decision to call the snap election as unnecessary and potentially dangerous for people heading to the polls.
The disgruntled include Liberals, leading to the possibility that many of them may simply not vote.
Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada called a snap election last month — two years ahead of schedule — he has struggled to explain why he thinks it’s necessary.
The last general election, in 2019, left his Liberal Party in a weakened position. Mr. Trudeau says he needs a strong mandate this time to bring the pandemic under control and lead Canada to economic recovery.
But his rivals have called the election a power grab. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party heads into Election Day in a statistical tie with the Conservative Party, led by Erin O’Toole.
What issues are in play?
Covid-19: The pandemic response is one point of contention between the two candidates. Mr. Trudeau supports vaccine mandates for travel and for federal workers, as well as vaccine passports. Mr. O’Toole opposes them. Canada has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, but in some areas, case numbers are up and hospitals are near capacity.
Climate change: Mr. Trudeau has made this issue a priority, introducing, among other measures, a national carbon tax. The Conservatives, who opposed such taxes for years, came to this campaign with their first carbon tax plan.
Gun control: Mr. O’Toole promised to repeal a ban on 1,500 models of military-style assault rifles but he seemed to abandon that plan quickly; polling in Canada shows strong support for tight gun restrictions.
The economy: Canada has recovered nearly all the jobs lost by the pandemic. Spending on vaccines and economic support, though, has left large debts and deficits. After criticizing those deficits, Mr. O’Toole unveiled similar spending plans. He also promised to balance the budget within 10 years, which most economists say is not credible.
How about foreign policy?
The Conservatives say Mr. Trudeau has been ineffective in dealing with Beijing. China’s incarceration of two Canadian businessmen has been a source of tension for several years, seen as retaliation for Canada’s detention of a top executive at the Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Afghanistan has also been an issue. Mr. Trudeau called the snap election the same weekend that Kabul fell to the Taliban. His opponents said the timing interfered with Canada’s mission to rescue Afghans and criticized the government for not acting earlier.
How soon could we know the results?
Paper ballots from all electoral districts must be counted by hand before the results become clear, which is likely to be well into Monday evening or early Tuesday.
Should I take my own pencil as a pandemic precaution?
Election officials say voters are welcome to take their own pencils to mark their ballots, but they will provide single-use pencils at the polls. They have ordered 16 million short golf pencils and more than 3.6 million large-grip ones, far more than in 2019.