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Federal election brings world of deeply polarized politics to Canada’s doorstep


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Federal election brings world of deeply polarized politics to Canada’s doorstep

Is there a man in Canada more disliked than Justin Trudeau, who Canadans re-elected as Prime Minister on Monday? Well, maybe Erin O’Toole, whose party ran a strong second and seemed headed for a virtual tie in the popular vote? And definitely Maxime Bernier, whose party came to dominate debate in the closing month of the campaign.

Hey Canada, welcome to the world of deeply polarized “negative partisanship” in the age of right-wing populism: a state where everyone votes based on fear and loathing and no one gets what they actually want.

It’s a situation that’s become familiar in the United States over the past decade or so, and one of the key storylines of this Canadian election.

You can draw some of these conclusions, at least, from voter sentiment in the final days of the campaign. On the weekend, pollster Angus Reid tweeted an observation: “Both of the two largest parties are led by guys that are equally disliked (65 per cent each).” Abacus Data, too, in their final poll, had Trudeau actively disliked by more Canadians than liked him (44 per cent negative impression to only 39 per cent positive), a margin of unpopularity exceeded by O’Toole (43 per cent negative to 31 per cent positive) and by Bernier who was held in negative regard by a majority 51 per cent of those surveyed compared to only 12 per cent positive.

Jagmeet Singh, the most well-liked of the major national party leaders (a net 21 per cent positive) was on track to place a distant third in the voting. Of course.

No one got what they wanted here. Abacus says 69 per cent of voters wanted change, and the result appeared to be emphatically more of the same. Trudeau wanted a majority — that’s the whole reason he called the election — that based on Monday’s returns seemed out of reach. O’Toole wanted to form a government, and didn’t get to. Singh wanted a breakthrough, but appeared stalled in the same range of seats as before. Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada’s voters wanted to vent rage —and did — but didn’t seem on Monday night that they were likely to win a single seat.

Still, it was Bernier, and his belligerently angry and highly visible supporters, who shaped the story of the election, giving Trudeau (who called an election in search of a reason) a boogeyman to rally against. O’Toole, who had sprung out to a growing lead early in the campaign, wound up stuck between thrown rocks and a smug face.

O’Toole’s Conservatives clearly wanted to walk a fine line: presenting a bland, unthreatening centrist public face without saying much to publicly alienate the anti-vaccine crowd or the howling loonies of the conspiracist right who together form an unelectable but powerful anti-Trudeau voting block. Pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Research told me late last year that Trump-style “ordered outlook” populism represented the base of Conservative support and the biggest opportunity for the party to gain support. Yet it also seemed unlikely, especially as that block of voters coalesced around anti-vaccine sentiment during a pandemic resurgence, to be enough to win the whole election. So O’Toole wanted to count those hard-right chickens while working to hatch some moderate support.

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Bernier mobilizing at least a big chunk of that block of populist voters forced O’Toole’s hand. The stone-throwing, hospital-blocking caravan of anger made them a handy foil for the Liberal Leader, while forcing O’Toole to embrace or condemn them (he did neither convincingly). Issues like abortion and gun control put O’Toole in a similarly uncomfortable middle ground between popular opinion and base conviction. When Alberta Conservative Premier Jason Kenney was forced to admit the defeat of his own policies regarding COVID restrictions late in the game, it presented much the same predicament — and O’Toole responded by basically going into hiding from press questions about it while turning his message into a single-note strategic-voting appeal to potential Bernier voters.

O’Toole had to carry the baggage of the COVID-denier crowd, while Bernier picked up a big chunk of their votes.

Fat lot of good it did Bernier’s party in the seat count. The results were delayed by long lines, and it was already going to be probably a day at least before all the local mail-in votes would be counted and we know the exact composition of the new Parliament. In a minority situation it will be longer than that before we know how the governing dynamic shakes out.

Yet the contours of the campaign — and the popular vote — show that the election’s big loser in Parliament, Bernier, might have also run the most successful campaign. The PPC went from 1.6 per cent of the vote in 2019 to threatening to challenge the Green Party’s historic highs and looking like a potentially viable splinter party to the CPC.

Moreover, by being the only party willing to fully embrace the right-wing populist positions — and angry street tactics — that Trump’s coalition represents in the U.S., they managed to make the election about them. They mobilized seething rage and resentment in a way that became hard to ignore. As I wrote recently about the results of the California election, the forces of right-wing resentment may not be able to win an election right now, but they can effectively hijack political debate.

In Canada, it has led to a politics that is more polarized and angry than ever before. And to confront that bumpy terrain, another apparent minority government, an opposition suffering a leadership and identity crisis, and an empowered populist movement that likes forcing confrontations in the streets.

Everyone reacting to what they hate and fear. No one getting what they want. The seat totals making it look like not much has changed. But the campaign also didn’t suggest that our politics can stay the same.

Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]

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