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Polls show the Liberal Party of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in an almost dead heat with the rival Conservatives ahead of Monday’s snap federal election. But for the six-year prime minister, even a narrow victory may sting of defeat. When Trudeau chose this summer to call the vote, two years earlier than expected, he and his allies believed their relatively successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic would help convert their current minority government into one bolstered by a parliamentary majority.

On the eve of the election, Trudeau’s hopes for an expanded mandate in a third term look to be dashed. The likeliest outcome, my colleague Amanda Coletta noted, may be that Trudeau’s Liberals emerge with a plurality of the 338 seats in Canada’s House of Commons, but not the 170 needed to claim a majority. Their legislative agenda will once more face significant roadblocks in parliament. In polls over the course of the 36-day campaign period, the Liberals and Conservatives have been neck-in-neck, often within the margin of error. They are jostling alongside a number of national parties, including the left-leaning New Democratic Party, the Greens and the regionalist Bloc Québécois.

With the race so tight, the final verdict may not be known by day’s end.

“We’ll certainly have an idea of the likely outcome Monday evening, but we might have to wait another day for the final result due to a larger-than-usual number of mail-in ballots,” Felix Mathieu, a University of Winnipeg politics professor, told the Agence France-Presse.

The Liberals’ slide is, in part, a reflection of public exasperation with an arguably unwarranted election campaign amid a fourth wave of the pandemic.

“Whatever happens, Canadians will welcome the end of the election no one wanted,” columnist David Moscrop wrote. “Over the past few weeks, everyone has become a bit more cynical, tired and frustrated. Perhaps hopeless. Expect low turnout and another election within 18 months as the voting will continue until morale improves.”

That cynicism belies the genuine, substantive issues shaping the election campaign — including climate policy, gun control, housing affordability and the management of the pandemic.

“From the first day of the campaign, Trudeau has sought to make vaccine mandates a wedge issue,” wrote Coletta. “He backs mandatory vaccinations for federal civil servants and passengers traveling domestically on planes and trains.”

Trudeau’s main opponent, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, is softer on vaccine mandates, calling instead for unvaccinated workers to take regular coronavirus tests. The prime minister has linked O’Toole to the mess in Alberta, whose right-wing provincial government presides over the worst covid outbreak in the country. Alberta’s political leadership took an initially lax approach, but this past week Premier Jason Kenney admitted the province is in the grips of a “crisis of the unvaccinated.”

Trudeau has also punched left, warning that a vote for NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and his allies is tantamount to a vote for Conservatives. “Despite what the NDP likes to say, the choice is between a Conservative or a Liberal government right now,” Trudeau said while campaigning in the Toronto suburbs Sunday. “And it does make a difference to Canadians whether we have or not a progressive government.”

O’Toole still poses the most credible threat Trudeau has yet to face to his stint in power. To win control of his party, he dabbled in hard-line rhetoric more familiar to those south of the border, vowing to “take Canada back.” But on the campaign trail, he has tacked left.

O’Toole “moderated the party, he made the party’s view on climate change sensible, he adopted a retail carbon tax, he put himself in the mainstream on climate change, he put himself in the mainstream on some issues that hurt the previous leader on gay marriage and abortion and those kinds of issues,” Ken Boessenkool, a former top campaign strategist for prime minister Stephen Harper, the last Conservative leader to take office in Ottawa, told the Financial Times. “And I think by doing that, he didn’t make himself popular. He just made it so that he wouldn’t be unpopular.”

“The Conservatives have finally put out somebody who looks friendly and as though he won’t chew your fingers off if you try to shake hands,” said Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history at the University of Toronto, to my colleagues. “They’re presenting somebody who’s a very nice old grandpa figure or a nice uncle — and that’s different.”

Trudeau’s own luster has faded. A political scion and son of famous Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, his first win came in a 2015 landslide. Charismatic and energetic, he became the poster child of a new era of Western liberalism, a vision made all the easier by the rise of Donald Trump next door. Trudeau championed Canadian multiculturalism and the plight of refugees, spoke out on the threat of climate change and proudly celebrated his feminism.

But his time in office has been dogged by damaging scandals, from embarrassing revelations of blackface photos to criticism of his government’s handling of allegations of sexual assault within the military to ethics violations surrounding his role in the settlement of a legal case with a Quebec-based engineering firm that faced criminal charges. His climate warrior credentials also took a major hit with his pursuit of the money-spinning Keystone XL pipeline.

Trudeau’s most bitter opponents may actually help him win a third term. The far-right People’s Party of Canada emerged in 2018 animated by nativist anti-immigration sentiment. But it’s now propelled by full-blown opposition to pandemic-era restrictions and polling at around 6 percent — a vote share that may not win it a seat in parliament but could eat away enough support from the Conservatives to give Trudeau’s Liberals an edge in certain contested constituencies. In a scene unfamiliar to Canadian politics, Trudeau was pelted with gravel by PPC supporters at a campaign stop earlier this month.

Some analysts fear that the passions unleashed by the PPC, still a fringe force, may be a harbinger of things to come.

“Until now, the populist tide that has swept the world has had little effect in Canada,” wrote Stephen Maher in Maclean’s. “So far it is more of a ripple — a disturbance below the surface — and it ought to fade with the pandemic, but it could be the start of something bad.”

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