- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2015

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader who has governed the traditionally center-left nation for nearly a decade, is fighting an uphill battle to keep his job as the country wraps up an unusually fractious campaign with Monday’s national vote.

Polls show the center-left Liberal Party, headed by Justin Trudeau, the 43-year-old son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, surging in the final days, rebounding from a humiliating defeat in 2011 that left the long-dominant party in third place in the House of Commons and poised to win the most seats in the vote.

The Conservatives are trying to hold off the leftist New Democratic Party under Thomas Mulcair for second place, although no party is projected to get more than 40 percent of the final vote.

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The silver-haired Mr. Harper, 56, has led the nation since 2006 and is aiming to be the first Canadian prime minister in more than a century to win four straight elections. But analysts say the slumping economy — oil prices have collapsed and gross domestic product contracted in the first five months of the year before returning to growth — and rising voter fatigue with the Conservative government are harming his chances of another term in Ottawa.

Acknowledging that the Liberals have had to rebuild themselves in the political wilderness, Mr. Trudeau said the government’s own record was its biggest liability.

“We’ve had 10 years of the worst record of any prime minister on growth since the Great Depression under Mr. Harper,” he told CTV News in an interview last week. “We need to kick-start growth, and that means investing right now in the kinds of things that are going to create jobs and lead to greater productivity, greater opportunities long-term.”

Heading into the weekend, polls showed Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals building a clear edge, with the polling aggregation site ThreeHundredEight.com giving the party 35.1 percent of the vote, with the Conservatives at 31 percent and the NDP at 23.2 percent. More important, the Liberals are projected to take 136 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons, just 34 short of the number needed for a governing majority.

The campaign has featured some potent wedge issues. The Conservatives have highlighted their fight to restore a 2011 law that requires veil-wearing women to reveal their faces in public citizenship ceremonies, but analysts say many Canadian voters are taking stock at a deeper level after a decade with Mr. Harper at the helm.

The searing pictures of the Syria Kurdish refugee boy found dead on a beach in Turkey last month held a particular poignancy for a country proud of its international image for humanitarian activism. The boy’s family was making the dangerous trip to Europe as relatives in Canada struggled to get official clearance to allow them to enter legally.

“Canada is a bit trying to find its way in the world, and where its niches are and where its niches no longer are,” said Kenneth N. Frankel, president of the Canadian Council for the Americas.

The campaign season was punctuated by a series of debates among the candidates, focused on a range of topics including federal government reform, taxes, energy and the recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal involving Canada, the U.S., Japan and nine other Pacific Rim nations. Of the three main parties, only Mr. Mulcair has come out against the TPP as well as the still-pending Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“Here in Canada, it was really specific issues” in the election debate, said Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of the policy journal Walrus magazine. “It’s actually very refreshing because these are the issues we should be voting on.”

A pitch for stability

Mr. Harper’s campaign has hinged on a promise of continuity and a focus on security measures. In addition to the veil issue, he has talked of forbidding parole for criminals serving life sentences and revoking citizenship for convicted terrorists. The Liberals and NDP have accused the government of using fear tactics, but the prime minister says his get-tough policies have the support of a majority of voters.

Mr. Harper also has tried to play on voters’ doubts about the readiness of his chief rivals to take the top job, arguing that they will return the country to the time of heavy taxation and extensive government interference in the market.

“I don’t think that conservatives, certainly people who lean to our party, are going to for a minute buy the idea that in an unstable global economy we should go on a spending binge of $150 billion paid for by cutting benefits, by raising taxes and running deficits,” the prime minister said at a Toronto campaign stop last week. “Canadians are not going to buy that.”

He touted the “stable” economic plan his government is offering, with balanced budgets and tax cuts to spur business confidence and investment.

Mr. Trudeau has promised change to Canadians, with a plan for higher taxes on the wealthy and more federal stimulus spending to boost growth. He has also wooed younger voters with promises to make paying for college and paying off loans more achievable.

Many analysts say the strategy has paid off. The Liberals trailed the NDP when the campaign began, but critics say it adopted a too-cautious approach while Mr. Trudeau managed to shine in the series of candidate debates that followed. Mr. Harper’s stay-the-course approach also failed to excite Canadian voters increasingly seeking new ideas.

“Two campaigns — the Conservatives and the NDP — chose more well-worn campaign strategies,” former Conservative Party Chief of Staff David McLaughlin wrote Friday in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail. “The Liberals chose the opposite. On this final election weekend, it is the Liberals who lead in voting intentions, not their opponents. It has made all the difference.”

Voter interest appears to be high. Canadian election officials reported last week that an estimated 3.6 million people took advantage of the opportunity to vote early, a 71 percent increase from 2011.

The Conservatives currently control 159 seats in the House of Commons, with the NDP holding 95 and the Liberals at 36 seats. Mr. Harper could hold on to his job even if the Conservatives don’t win the most seats, depending on how the postelection negotiations go, but most expect Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals to be able to fashion a coalition government if they wind up with the plurality of seats Monday.

Pollster Nik Nanos, a fellow of the Canada Institute, told a recent Council of the Americas briefing on the election that the result will hinge on two blocs of voters: those who want change and those who fear the risk of the untried Mr. Trudeau and his party. Despite the polls, Mr. Nanos said, the outcome remained far from certain because of what he called the “I can’t believe I’m voting for ” phenomenon and last-minute shifts in public opinion.

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