Buckle up -- Canada's election will be a cliffhanger

The two top contenders in Canada's election are Liberal leader and incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Through it all, they've been tangled in a virtual tie for the popular vote. CNN's Paula Newton reports.

Posted: Oct 21, 2019 6:30 AM
Updated: Oct 21, 2019 6:30 AM

Nasty. It is not a word associated much with Canada -- except perhaps with the winters here. But during this election campaign, nastiness has been one of the only unifying themes, as parties trade insults and dig up scandals from coast to coast to coast.

Canada votes in a general election on Monday, and the campaign rhetoric to this date has been toxic and "a desert from a public policy point of view," says veteran Canadian pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research. All that has undeniably turned off Canada's voters, and added another layer of complexity to one of the most unpredictable Canadian elections in recent history.

The two top contenders are Liberal leader and incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Through it all, they've been tangled in a virtual tie for the popular vote. Neither has a clear path to governing in Canada's parliamentary system. "If people were to describe the election, it would be 'Indecision 2019'," says Nanos.

Polls and Google search rates indicate healthcare is the top election issue for many Canadians although the climate crisis is not far behind. Taxes, education and the legalization of cannabis are other issues Canadians are wanting to hear more about. The Conservative party is perceived to have a more aggressive stand on cutting taxes while many voters believe Scheer will do less than other leaders on climate.

But there is a reason some Canadians are calling this the 'Seinfeld' election, or the election about nothing. There isn't one single issue that has engaged voters and that pollsters believe can swing the vote significantly towards one party or leader.

When does Canada vote?

Canada's election takes place in 338 ridings or seats across the country, and preliminary results should be announced around 8pm on election night. One hundred and seventy seats are needed to be able to form a majority government, and polls show neither Trudeau nor Scheer are anywhere near that threshold.

Forming a minority government (with the support of other parties) will also be complicated. The sitting Prime Minister -- Trudeau, in this case -- is usually granted the first crack at forming a government, even if he wins fewer seats than his opponents. That means that an opposition politician who wins the popular vote might have the most seats in parliament -- but still not get the chance to form a government.

"We could have the Conservative Party win the popular vote by one or two percentage points but not be able to form a government and the Liberals forming the government" says Nanos adding, "Buckle up! It's possible for the winner to be the loser and the loser to be the winner in the Canadian election!"

Trudea, Scheer, Singh and the rest of the field

Justin Trudeau could have never imagined this time last year that he'd be fighting for a political future. He has been humiliated and diminished by scandals in recent months, all of them unforced errors. In 2015, he managed to awaken the 'Trudeaumania' that brought his late father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to power in the 1960s. But this time there's no mania, just moodiness -- even among those in his base.

In a humiliating act of contrition last month, Trudeau had to apologize not just for wearing blackface during a school event nearly 2 decades ago, but admitting he had no idea how many times he had chosen to do so in his life. It was an embarrassing look for his campaign, which has focused on digging up dirt opponents, and the revelations disappointed many voters and likely contributed to the Liberals losing ground in the last few weeks.

Nevertheless, it did not become the central issue in this campaign that many expected. And as if to punctuate that point, former US President Barack Obama broke with convention to tweet his support for Trudeau, writing: "The world needs his progressive leadership now, and I hope our neighbors to the north support him for another term."

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer has tried and failed to capitalize on the scandal and other criticisms of Trudeau. His campaign has fiercely and consistently attacked Trudeau, but the negative emphasis hasn't engaged voters the way Scheer had hoped. Nor has it made his policies more appealing -- he is fiscally and socially conservative, offering a no-nonsense, stable government with tax cuts and eventually, balanced budgets. Crucially, voters in Quebec and Ontario, Canada's two largest provinces, haven't warmed much to him or his policies.

It didn't help that Scheer ended up disclosing during the campaign that he is, in fact, an American citizen, with dual nationality in both Canada and its southern neighbor. Legally, dual nationality does not disqualify you from running for Prime Minister in Canada, and Scheer says he is in the process of renouncing his American citizenship. Nevertheless for a man trying to convince voters they can't trust Trudeau, some were puzzled and wondered why they should trust Scheer after a years-long career as a Canadian politician, during which he never spoke once of his US citizenship.

Coming up close behind the Conservatives and Liberals is the progressive New Democratic Party (NDP), lead by Jagmeet Singh. Some voters disenchanted with Trudeau have moved on to Singh, who touts climate action and a government-funded drug program for all. A practicing Sikh, his colorful turbans he's been sporting throughout the campaign have reminded Canadians of the changing complexion of their country. His party would most likely prop up Trudeau in any attempt to form a minority government.

The rest of the contenders wouldn't normally be very consequential. But this time around, as a minority government is the most likely outcome, the smaller parties and their leaders could be election day spoilers.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, is trying to convince Canadians that she and her party are about much more than the environment. Support for them has been growing steadily -- even if they win only a few seats, the Green Party could have a strong voice in Canada's next parliament.

And then there is Quebec. Always a singular, distinctive place where voters often surprise. This time is no different. In Quebec, Bloc party leader Yves-Francois Blancet, a Quebec separatist, is nearly tied with Trudeau and the Liberal party. Blancet has made short work of the both the Liberals and the Conservatives in this campaign. And his popularity in a vast province a pivotal reason why it's unlikely any party will win a majority of seats this time around.

According to Google's trending searches, it is the leaders and their personalities that are finally getting voters' attention in the final days of the campaign.

"How do you know it's election season in Canada? Searches for Andrew Scheer are outpacing searches for Sidney Crosby. Justin Trudeau searches are outpacing searchers for Justin Bieber. Jagmeet Singh is topping Drake in searches," says Aaron Brindle, the Head of Public Affairs at Google Canada.

"Canadians care about this stuff," he adds.

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