Canada goes to the polls tomorrow morning (Australian time) in an election called by prime minister Justin Trudeau two years ahead of schedule. Last time around, in 2019, Trudeau’s Liberal Party lost its parliamentary majority; this time he hopes to get it back.
The opposition Conservatives (centre-right) actually topped the poll in 2019 with 34.3% of the vote as against 33.1% for the Liberals (centre-left) and 16.0% for the New Democrats (NDP; leftish). But as those with any familiarity with the Canadian electoral system will expect, the seat totals were quite different: the Liberals finished ahead with 157, the Conservatives were back on 121 and the NDP on 24 were in fourth place – behind the Quebec Bloc, which won 32 seats from just 7.6% of the vote.
The Greens with three seats (from 6.5%) were the only other party to enter parliament, and there was one independent. Mention should also be made of the right-wing People’s Party, which scored only 1.6% but may have hurt the Conservatives by splitting their vote. It is polling much better now, in the high single digits, presumably because the Conservatives under new leader Erin O’Toole have shifted towards the centre.
The semi-random relationship between votes and seats makes prediction difficult. For most of the last two years, polling showed the Liberals with a clear lead. That fell sharply after Trudeau called the election: voters really do not like early elections, although the political class everywhere is slow to get the message. About a month ago the Conservatives hit the lead, and for the last fortnight they have been close to neck and neck.
As the last election indicates, the Liberals are probably a bit better placed than the Conservatives to turn votes into seats; their vote tends to be more evenly spread. For what it’s worth (probably very little), Trudeau also leads O’Toole in polls of preferred prime minister, although that lead too has narrowed sharply. But the chance of either side winning a majority looks very slim.
Assuming they don’t, it will be up to the NDP and the Quebeckers as to who forms government. The NDP, which is polling a few points above its 2019 result (although tactical voting means that has the capacity to change suddenly, as it did in 2015), has always supported the Liberals in the past and would probably do so again. But its leader Jagmeet Singh has carefully avoided committing himself, and the Conservatives’ shift towards the centre raises at least the possibility that the two might find common ground.
The Quebec Bloc is more of a wild card; its good result last time, after being almost wiped out in 2011, came as a surprise to most observers, and it may or may not be able to repeat it. It also generally leans toward the left, but it tolerated a minority Conservative government in 2006-08 and may do so again if the Conservatives manage to wind up with the most seats.
At this stage that seems the less likely outcome, and the betting is that the benefit of incumbency in the Covid era will be enough to save Trudeau from his own folly in going early. But the caprice of the electoral system could yet deliver a surprise. And if it does we may not know for some time, since a large fraction of the electorate has voted by pre-poll, which will not be counted until the following day.