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One could forgive Justin Trudeau for believing he has poor luck with timing. Less than two months ago the Canadian prime minister was riding high in the polls. So in mid-August he called for a new snap federal election, two years ahead of schedule, with the belief that he could turn that public support into an outright majority win for his Liberal Party and not rely on other parties in a coalition.
But as he called for new federal elections, a new wave of infections began sweeping across Canada. And the day of the election announcement, Aug. 15, coincided with the Taliban takeover of the Afghan capital of Kabul, an event that subsequently took over news headlines. Canadian military forces had withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014, but Afghans who supported the country's military and diplomatic efforts remained behind.
Suddenly, Trudeau came under withering criticism on two fronts: for not acting fast enough to evacuate Afghan support staff, and for staging a costly national election amid a new wave of COVID-19 cases.
As Canadians vote today, polls show a virtual dead heat between Trudeau and Conservative Party leader Erin O'Toole. With a sizable number of undecided voters -- the latest polling showed 1 in 8 Canadian voters had not decided among the five major party candidates -- observers are shying away from predicting an outright winner.
"There's been no ballot question that any of the parties have been able to successfully put out there," (that resonates with voters), says Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
Voters will decide 338 seats in Parliament's House of Commons, which in turn will decide the next prime minister, a process similar to the U.S. public voting for members of the U.S. House of Representatives, where the majority party selects who is Speaker of the House.
Trudeau, 49, garnered international headlines when he became prime minister. The son of the flamboyant late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, much of the early international reporting hailed Justin as a rising star, the public face of a young, progressive Canada. His first cabinet was ethnically diverse and featured an equal number of women and men -- a first in Canadian history. But Trudeau has since faced various corruption and ethics violations scandals. Perhaps most personally damaging was the 2019 revelation that he wore blackface at a party while working as a 29-year-old teacher at a Vancouver private school. And female members of Trudeau's cabinet have since resigned, stirring criticism over the prime minister's sincerity in valuing views from strong women.
Analysts say few issues separate Trudeau and the 48-year-old O'Toole. Managing the pandemic is the top public concern, but debates in the two national languages of English and French did little to distinguish the candidates. Trudeau has sought to make vaccine mandates a wedge issue between him and O'Toole, who while encouraging vaccinations, says he won't require them.
It may be Canadians' social sensibilities that tip the vote.
"Canada, fundamentally, is a much more progressive country than the U.S.," Bratt says. "And so if the polls are tied, that tells me that the Liberals have a slight lead, but nobody is getting a majority government."
That scenario makes the other candidates potentially very powerful kingmakers if they win enough votes to forge a majority of public support with the leading party.
Jagmeet Singh leads the left-leaning New Democrats, or NDP, which currently polls third. Singh, a 42-year-old practicing Sikh, is the first nonwhite figure to lead a major national party in Canada. Annamie Paul, 48, is the first Black and Jewish woman to lead a major Canadian party. Yves-François Blanchet, 56, leads the separatist party Bloc Québécois, which runs candidates only in predominantly French-speaking Quebec province. A sixth candidate, Maxine Bernier, 58, leads the far-right People's Party of Canada, a party formed in 2018 that formally opposes coronavirus lockdown measures such as compulsory vaccinations and mask mandates. That party's popular support varies between 5%-10%.
Singh wants $200 billion on top of current government expenditures to manage the pandemic. He also wants national pharma-care and dental programs, and promises a wealth tax.
"He could very well determine who does become prime minister," Bratt says. "And that, I think, is what we're going to come down to: the role that Jagmeet Singh is going to play."
Regardless of who wins, little change is expected in Canada's foreign policy. If O'Toole wins, political observers say Canada may join the U.S. and Australia in banning Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, but even that is uncertain.
"By and large, we have a consensus foreign policy, no matter whether it's a Liberal or Conservative (government)," Bratt says. "Even Justin Trudeau, with all of his selfies and glamour in the first couple of years after becoming prime minister, if you actually look at the policies, they were very similar to what (Conservative Prime Minister predecessor) Stephen Harper was doing on trade and security."
Kevin Drew is the assistant managing editor for international news. He helped develop and launch Best Countries for U.S. News & World Report in 2016. He has worked in Asia, Europe and the U.S. for The New York Times, CNN, The Associated Press and other news organizations. He has reported from Africa, the Middle East and conflict zones such as Myanmar and the Balkans. He is a recipient of a DuPont Award for Excellence in Journalism for CNN's digital coverage of the South Asian tsunami, and a Peabody Award for CNN's coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Follow him on Twitter.