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World & Nation

Justin Trudeau wins tight Canadian election, but he’ll need a coalition to govern

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledges cheers as he takes the stage at Liberal election headquarters in Montreal on Monday night.
(Canadian Press via Associated Press)

After a six-week campaign that raised vital questions about the cultural identity of Canada and difficult questions about the personal identity of its prime minister, voters here gave Justin Trudeau a second term — though they chastened the Liberal Party leader by depriving him of the majority in Parliament he enjoyed the last four years.

Preliminary vote returns in a tight election indicated that neither Trudeau’s Liberals nor his Conservative rivals will capture a majority in Parliament, though the incumbent prime minister was declared the winner because he has the whip hand in efforts soon to be underway to cobble together a governing coalition, almost certainly with the New Democratic Party that sits to the Liberals’ left.

Trudeau enters this undertaking with diminished support in Parliament and thus with diminished power and maneuverability in the country’s politics if, as it appears likely, he and New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh come to a governing agreement; there was considerable erosion of Liberal support in Quebec and scattered Liberal erosion nationwide, including in Atlantic Canada and Ontario.

The Liberals’ declines were matched in some measure by gains by the Conservatives, whose leader, Andrew Scheer, failed to project a leadership profile vivid enough to overcome a chastened Trudeau.

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At the same time, the broad contours of potential new conflicts in Canadian politics emerged.

The rise of the Bloc Quebecois that drained support from Trudeau’s party in the province signals a reenergized nationalism in Quebec, a condition that off and on for a century or more has been an important but difficult factor in Canadian federal politics. The simultaneous rise of the New Democratic Party signals that politics here may take a sharp left turn if Trudeau and Singh come to their expected agreement that would allow the prime minister to retain power.

In that case, the minority Liberal government would begin by accommodating Trudeau’s likely coalition partners — no formal, signed agreement will be necessary — and accede in the coming months and perhaps years to New Democratic Party inclinations or demands, all to insulate Trudeau from votes of confidence that could lead to a swift call for a new election.

In short, there are more moving parts to Canadian politics today than there were yesterday. Indeed, some of the smaller moving parts have more power than they had yesterday, and perhaps even more power than the larger parts have today.

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But in the meantime, the 47-year-old Trudeau remains prime minister and his Cabinet appointments retain their portfolios. That assures that government operations continue unaffected by the impasse and that Canadian interests abroad are represented by the sitting officials.

It is not clear how long it will take to resolve the final content and character of Canada’s next government even if it appears clear that the New Democrats will side with the Liberals and produce a majority. Israel voted on Sept. 17, no party won a majority, and the composition of the new government in Jerusalem remains uncertain — a length of uncertainty inconceivable here in a country that spans a continent, has the 10th largest economy in the world, and has enormous stakes in the reshaping of the North American Free Trade Agreement involving the U.S. and Mexico.

The postelection maneuvering follows a campaign in which the apparent certainties (the notion, for example, that Trudeau’s ‘’sunny ways’’ still were a winning card in Canada) were undermined and the unknowns (the extent, for instance, of Singh’s personal appeal) redounded to the disadvantage of Trudeau, particularly when reports (and photographs) of the young Trudeau in blackface and brownface emerged. The only factor that remained unchanged was the placid personality of Scheer, who began the campaign as an unknown and ended it as one of the least interesting leadership candidates of contemporary times.

Indeed, one of the major, unspoken elements of the campaign was that large numbers of people wanted to prevent Scheer from ascending to the prime ministership — and large numbers also wanted to prevent Trudeau from remaining there. From coast to coast there was general ennui about both the campaign and the candidates, and at various points in the contest both major parties seemed to be leaching support.

The son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and possessed of a winning personality and uplifting rhetoric when he became the country’s leader, Trudeau was at the center of a scandal involving improper political interference in a complex justice matter, he made promises about addressing injustices suffered by Canada’s indigenous people that he found impossible to meet, and he purchased a pipeline while working to address climate change and impose a carbon tax that was particularly deplored in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

That surface contradiction won him more enmity than admiration and set the stage for a new flowering of alienation in Canada’s West — a development that was an echo of the Western rebellion that his father spawned with his National Energy Program unveiled in 1980.

Besides the unknowns surrounding the government in Ottawa, new unknowns were emerging Monday night about the role of Quebec in Canada’s confederation.

The strong showing of the Bloc and the impressive campaign performance of its leader, Yves-Francoise Blanchet, puts Quebec back at the contentious center of Canadian politics.

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Blanchet and his provincial equivalent, Premier Francois Legault, are not threatening an imminent new push for Quebec separatism, but the Bloc’s surge signals that issues involving the preservation of francophone language and culture — along with compensation for the province’s dairy farmers, whose interests are threatened by the new trade agreement with Mexico and the United States —will have new force.

But one of the ironies of this election is that the results will have the peculiar effect of extending Canada’s campaign season rather than ending it. Though no formal campaigning will be undertaken, all the parties will remain on a campaign footing, for they know that the new government will be fragile, a new election could come at any time, and they may need their political tools as soon as 12 to 18 months from now.

Shribman is a special correspondent.

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