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Canada: The Disenchantment of Justin Trudeau

In a world of growing nationalism and populist attacks on representative democracy, Canada appears like an island of political stability and contentment. The country survived the financial crisis from 2008 relatively unscathed. And although - or perhaps because - almost 20 percent of the population was born abroad, it appears to be largely immune to nativist ideologies and demagogic politicians. One looks in vain in Canada for a deep political division as in its southern neighbor USA. Even more: While Donald Trump is imposing aggressive right-wing conservatism on his country and US society threatens to freeze in political rifts, Canada has transformed itself into a more liberal, cosmopolitan country in recent years.

The question of where this Canadian Exceptionalism comes from is now filling the feature pages of the national press. Some point to the compromise-prone political culture, others to the educational system or the right to vote, and still others to the inclusive spirit of Canadian multiculturalism. But one thing is certain: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been in office since 2015, has played a major role in this change.

When the liberal politician surprisingly replaced the Conservatives almost four years ago and thus ended their nine-year reign, the country looked liberated. The new telegenic prime minister promised sunny ways, a departure into a progressive future and greater serenity after almost a decade of conservative-neoliberal politics.

As an avowed feminist, Trudeau wanted to promote equality for women and the empowerment of sexual minorities and to act as an international pioneer in the fight against climate change. In addition, when he took office, he promised to strengthen the middle class and achieve economic growth through larger government, debt-financed investments - with the latter he even went beyond the program of the New Democratic Party, which was actually further left. Trudeau also promised a return to Canadian leadership in international refugee policy and a progressive tax policy. After all, he wanted to combat the blatant disadvantage of Canada's indigenous people - this should even become a priority of his domestic policy.

Disappointed hopes

Almost four years later, however, it is far from certain whether Trudeau still knows the majority of the country behind him. The recent parliamentary elections at the end of October therefore present the ruling liberals with a huge challenge: There is not much left of the original enthusiasm when Trudeau took office; Two decisions caused particular disappointment: On the one hand, Trudeau had already announced in the last election campaign that, as Prime Minister, he wanted to ensure that Canada does not vote again under a British-style majority vote (first-pass-the-post). But he later cashed in on this promise of a renewal of Canadian democracy with the succinct reference to the complexity of an electoral reform and the supposed lack of social majorities.

On the other hand, the prime minister - in an attempt to reconcile environmental protection with economic growth - decided to buy the Trans Mountain Pipeline a good year ago. Their massive expansion is now to be ensured under state supervision. After years of political struggle, he wanted to guarantee that the bitumen from the production areas in northern Alberta could be delivered to the coast via pipelines and sold to Asia. However, this decision is not only highly controversial in British Columbia and the First Nations through whose territory this pipeline runs. The enlargement also feeds massive doubts about the seriousness of Trudeau's claim to give priority to climate protection and to fulfill Canada's obligations under the Paris Agreement.

A political scandal

In addition, there is another heavy burden for Trudeau: He is surrounded by a political scandal that has filled the newspapers for months and is gleefully cannibalized by the conservative opposition. In February 2019, Trudeau's Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned, accusing the Prime Minister and his government of legally unsustainable pressure on them. In this way, they claim, they should be persuaded to avert a corruption lawsuit against SNC Lavalin, a large Quebec-based machine manufacturer. Indeed, the Canadian Ethics Committee found in a report in mid-August that Trudeau had undoubtedly influenced this legal process illegitimately. Trudeau defended himself by pointing out that as Prime Minister and MP from Quebec it was also his duty to stand up for one of the largest employers in the French-speaking part of the country. But his image as a clean man, who claimed to put an end to the intrigues and lack of transparency in the years under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is now badly damaged.

Because this scandal cost Trudeau considerable political capital in two respects: On the one hand, he made Jody Wilson-Raybould, one of the most prominent and popular women in his cabinet, the opponent, who was also the only minister with an indigenous background. On the other hand, Trudeau made it easy for the opposition: They can now accuse him of merely defending the interests of the power elite and not those of the middle class, which he also ensnares.

The conservatives as carers

All of this points to the core of the growing displeasure with Trudeau. Some of his full-bodied promises are in blatant contradiction to reality: The indigenous population is promised reparation for historical injustices, but at the same time many of these communities still do not have drinking tap water. Trudeau proudly proclaims that Canada's foreign policy is guided by human rights considerations, but then the Liberal government approves the delivery of heavy weapons to Saudi Arabia. This list goes on. Such contradictions are obviously normal in many countries, but in Canada they contrast all too clearly with Trudeau's political self-presentation.

So everything is currently boiling down to a neck-and-neck race between Trudeau's Liberals and the Progressive Conservative Party (PC) under Andrew Scheer. The outcome is also difficult to predict because the election campaign is characterized by a lack of controversial political debates. Instead, it is run in a highly personalized way: the conservatives criticize Trudeau as an elitist politician who is deeply connected to the country’s powerful people and who is insensitive to the everyday worries of the population.

This is not without a certain irony: of all things, the conservatives - after years of neoliberal politics - make the financial worries of Canadians a central election issue and present themselves as the alleged defender of the citizen, who is plagued by excessive taxes and costs. On top of that, they also use slogans that are almost identical to those of the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP).

Trudeau, in turn, tries to score points with his halfway intact liberal image and places the corresponding achievements at the center of his campaign: the legalization of cannabis, his standing up for the LGBTQ community or the progress made in so-called reconciliation, the reconciliation with the indigenous population . The decisive factor, however, is likely to be whether Trudeau succeeds in connecting his adversary Andrew Scheer with the conservative agenda of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Just in time for the start of the election campaign, the Liberals published older video recordings by Scheer in which Scheer speaks out against same-sex marriage and the right to abortion. Scheer tried to appease and stressed that his conservatives had no intention of questioning the right to abortion. But Trudeau's strategy of sowing fears of a conservative backlash among the liberal, mostly metropolitan population, seems to have had an impact.

Social Democrats without a chance

What can we expect from the other parties? Eight years ago the NDP was the largest opposition party, but now the Social Democrats are likely to play only a subordinate role. There are many reasons for this: The party's weakness is primarily due to the poor leadership qualities of Jagmeet Singh, who was elected NDP leader in 2017, but has so far received little response from the Canadian public. One reason for his lack of popularity is probably that Singh is the first chairman of a Canadian party that belongs to the so-called visible minorities: He wears a turban and thus makes his membership of the Sikh religious community public. This is likely to cause him considerable disadvantages in less multicultural rural areas and especially in Quebec.

More decisive for the weakness of the NDP, however, is the current struggle for the party's political identity: it is torn between its commitment to an active environmental and climate policy on the one hand and its support for workers, especially in the Canadian raw material industries such as oil, gas and on the other Mining. This tension within the left-wing electorate was splendidly evident in the harsh conflict between two provincial governments led by the NDP. The oil-exporting Alberta and the strongly ecologically oriented British Columbia faced each other.

In any case, climate protection is increasingly becoming a central election campaign issue. This is already ensured by the strengthening of the Greens, who have so far only been represented by two members in the national parliament. Its current upswing points to the rapidly growing importance of environmental issues in the Canadian party contest. The polls of the Green Party under Elizabeth May, which are largely at the expense of the NDP, are currently over eleven percent, which is particularly noteworthy in view of the majority voting rights that punish the small parties. With their slogan “Not left, not right, but facing forward” and the focus on climate change, the Greens have succeeded in gaining growing support across the country. It cannot be ruled out that they will tip the scales in the formation of a government if none of the major parties achieve a majority.

Lack of willingness to change

In contrast, the new People’s Party of Canada (PPC), which was launched in 2018 by Maxime Bernier, a former candidate for the chairmanship of the Conservatives, is an unknown quantity. The PPC represents decidedly right-wing populist and migration-critical positions and presents itself as a right-nationalist alternative to the conservative party, which is oriented towards the political center. Bernier propagates “smart populism”, but above all attracts the country's - so far clear - anti-immigrant and nationalist forces. Although the PPC can only count on a few percent in the elections, it is likely to steal those voters from the conservatives on their right flank who need them to succeed over Trudeau's liberals.

The Prime Minister of Ontario, Doug Ford, who has been in office since June 2018, also proves to be a burden for the conservatives: He is considered "Trump light" due to his populist rhetoric and election promises, but has lost much of his initial popularity with his radical austerity policy .

Despite all the disappointment with Trudeau's first term in office, all in all there is no strong willingness to change in Canadian society: the economy is booming and a glance at the USA feeds the doubts of many Canadians about turning to the right. However, Trudeau has to fear that many of his potential supporters will not vote as they measure the Prime Minister by his full-bodied promise from 2015. It will therefore be crucial for Trudeau to mobilize sufficient reservations about a renewed conservative government. Whether this will lead to enough voters considering Trudeau again with their vote remains to be seen.

The outcome of the upcoming parliamentary elections remains completely open. What is certain, however, is that the likelihood of a majority government - be it under liberal or conservative leadership - is rather low. The two big parties are too close to each other in surveys for that. Canada could get a coalition government in autumn for the first time in a long time - maybe even a green-liberal one.