Polls indicate Canada is heading for a tight two-way race between its traditional rival parties, with a real possibility of a minority government after the vote on October 19.
Montreal (dpa) – It was supposed be an Orange Tsunami, a crushing wave of New Democratic Party (NDP) members of parliament with their trademark orange banners sweeping aside Canada’s traditional parties – the Conservatives and the Liberals – for a brighter, more equal future.
Instead, as Canadians prepare to cast their ballots on Monday October 19, polls show it’s shaping up to be a photo finish final dash between the newly resurgent Liberals led by Justin Trudeau and the incumbent Conservatives led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with perhaps neither party capturing enough votes to form a majority government.
And NDP leader Tom Mulcair could end up being the big loser of Canada’s longest ever election campaign. His left-wing party continues to lose steam nationally and in the French-speaking province of Quebec, where the NDP drew most of its support during the last election in 2011, unseating the Liberals to become the official opposition in the House of Commons.
Mulcair, a feisty 60-year-old former Quebec environment minister of mixed Irish and French-Canadian ancestry, has fought his campaign on a message of “true change.”
He has run on a promise to introduce a national childcare system, invest heavily in public transportation, education and Aboriginal communities, abolish Canada’s unelected Senate, commit Canada to drastically lower its greenhouse gas emissions and end Ottawa’s military campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Canada is taking part in the US-led bombing campaign of Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, and Canadian special forces train Iraqi and Kurdish fighters.
In a very unusual step for a party with strong social-democratic credentials Mulcair also promised to do all that while also keeping a balanced budget.
Trudeau, 43, the eldest son of former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, on the other hand is promising to run three consecutive deficits of a “modest” 10 billion Canadian dollars (7.8 billion US dollars) a year each to kickstart the sputtering Canadian economy.
Harper is campaigning on a traditional Conservative platform of balancing the budget, tax cuts for the middle class and security both at home and internationally.
It has been a difficult slog for the 56-year-old Conservative leader whose 10-year stint as prime minister coincided with the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression and led to the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
Even more troubling for Harper, whose political support is based in oil- and gas-rich Western Canada, has been the steep decline in oil prices and other commodities that were fuelling Canada’s growth until recently.
Harper has had to fend off attacks from his political rivals who have labelled him the prime minister “with the worst job creation record since the Great Depression” and savaged him on Canada’s slow response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
But a master tactician, Harper has been able to stay afloat by introducing campaign issues that have kept his rivals on their heels.
One such issue was the furore surrounding the niqab, a face-covering veil worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women in Canada. The niqab issue exploded in the middle of the 78-day campaign, exposing an undercurrent of malaise over accommodations for religious minorities, especially the growing Muslim community in Canada.
It came as a young Pakistani woman, Zunera Ishaq, challenged in courts a regulation introduced by the Conservatives that would have prevented her from taking a Canadian citizenship oath while wearing the niqab, which conceals the woman’s face, leaving only her eyes visible.
Subsequent Federal Court decisions sided with Ishaq and struck down the government rules, but public opinion polls have shown the majority of Canadians are opposed to the niqab. Harper masterfully used the niqab issue in election debates to zero in on Mulcair and Trudeau who sided with the court decision and slammed Harper for using it as “a weapon of mass distraction.”
But the niqab controversy turned out to be a game-changer for the Conservatives and the NDP, which was already slipping in the polls. The Conservatives immediately shot up in opinion polls across the country but especially in the staunchly secular Quebec.
Ishaq, incidentally, took her oath of citizenship on October 9 – while wearing her niqab – and says she is planning to vote on October 19.