Why are Canadians heading to the polls again next month?

Why are Canadians heading to the polls again next month?

In a bid to capitalize on sustained high public support, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called a snap election for 20 September, less than two years since the last national vote. Initial polling suggests that Trudeau's Liberal Party has a good chance of recapturing the majority in parliament it lost in 2019, though much will depend on how the campaign evolves.

Still, one thing is clear: This is Trudeau's election to lose. If he is successful in scooping up enough new seats in parliament, that will give the Liberals four more years to execute an agenda that goes big on recovery spending, climate change, and social and health programs. It could prove a risky gamble, however, if he fails. Mikaela McQuade, director at Eurasia Group, explains what to expect.

What is a snap election exactly?

A snap election in a parliamentary democracy is one called by the prime minister when not required by law or convention — in Canada, that's every four years. Within that period, the prime minister is free to hold a vote at any time. Typically, snap elections are called in Canada when incumbents believe they have a good chance of increasing their power (that is, securing more seats in the House of Commons) or that the people need to have a say on a big issue that was not a factor in the last general election (spending hundreds of billions of dollars on pandemic management and recovery certainly qualifies).

How will this election be different from the last?

Following a year and a half of health and economic crisis provoked by COVID, campaign themes will focus squarely on healthcare and the pandemic response, as well as the economic recovery and a return to sustainable public finances (given the massive run-up in public deficits and debt). Climate change will also feature, but it'll be less important than in past elections now that the opposition Conservative Party is also on board with the need for climate action.

What about Afghanistan?

Foreign policy does not tend to get much oxygen in Canadian elections. That said, Canada has been involved in both combat and training in Afghanistan for a long time – 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members served and 165 lives lost. While Trudeau is not seen as responsible for the mission, he will be in the hot seat for how Canada responds to the crisis this year, especially with respect to taking in refugees. In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis became a campaign flashpoint over the humanitarian effort and potential security issues of accepting tens of thousands of refugees. Expect similar debates over Afghan refugees.

Could Trudeau obtain a parliamentary majority and what would that allow him to do?

Right now, polls have Trudeau on the verge of being able to secure a majority in parliament. If he does, his party could push through more legislation with less negotiation on a more predictable timeline. Opponents, however, will argue that Trudeau was able to achieve everything his party wanted even as a minority government and criticize him for calling an election as the country suffers a fourth wave of coronavirus infections.

What are risks for Trudeau if he fails?

Conversely, if the Liberal Party were to lose seats in parliament, it would likely be at the expense of the New Democratic Party, leading to lawmaking chaos for the Liberal government. In this scenario, the odds of the government falling and another election within a year would be high, and Trudeau would come under pressure from his party to resign.

How strong is the Conservative opposition?

The polls would say not strong at all. Right now, it is projected to have only about a 4 percent chance of getting enough votes to obtain the largest number of seats in parliament, though the campaign could make a world of difference for their new leader, Erin O'Toole, who remains largely unknown. But even if the Conservatives do get the most seats, if they fail to obtain a majority, it would be very difficult for them to form a minority government. A minority Conservative government could be blocked by a coalition of progressive parties that would have the first chance to form government if the Liberals were to lead it.

What would a new Trudeau term mean for relations with the US?

The years of Donald Trump's administration were not kind to Canada – trade wars and an unneeded renegotiation of NAFTA, a departure from longstanding regulatory harmonization, and global geopolitical disruptions all left Canadians with a bad taste in their mouth vis-à-vis their southern neighbor. As a result, no matter who becomes PM, Canada won't be rushing back to working hand-in-hand with the US; while Canada will continue to be a good ally, it is more likely to focus on forging its own path — the one that works best for Canada.

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French leaders, by contrast, have argued that, with or without NATO, Europe needs an approach to foreign-policy questions that doesn’t depend on alignment, or even agreement, with Washington.

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