Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who has slipped in the polls and faced angry protesters on the campaign trail, with one even throwing stones at him — is struggling with less than a week to go before snap elections.
When he called the 20 September elections a few weeks ago, the 49-year-old Liberal Party leader was in a far better position.
At that point, Trudeau was ahead of Conservative leader Erin O'Toole in opinion surveys and hoped to ride his handling of the coronavirus pandemic to a third term. But since that 15 August announcement, his campaign has stagnated and his hopes of returning at the head of a majority government seem difficult to fulfil.
On Monday, Trudeau suffered a fresh indignity -- as he was leaving an event in London, a city southwest of Toronto in Ontario province, he faced a crowd of protesters angry over proposed mandatory coronavirus vaccines and other crisis measures. Someone threw what appeared to be a handful of gravel at him, television footage showed. No one was injured.
Experts say that part of the anger against him is just a poor translation of frustrations the common man had to endure during the pandemic. However, it cannot be denied that Trudeau is now facing a possible election defeat over a barrage of criticism over climate, his ill-timed election announcement, and foreign policies.
Slip in the polls
Trudeau is now in a statistical dead heat with O'Toole, with 34 percent support for the Liberals and 32 percent for the Tories, according to a Nanos survey released Tuesday -- a difference that is within the poll's margin of error.
The prime minister has faced off on several recent occasions with what he described as "anti-vaxxer mobs" and "a small fringe element in this country that is angry, that doesn't believe in science."
Protesters have shouted racial and misogynist slurs at his entourage.
Demonstrations also targeted hospitals across Canada that are struggling with a sudden spike in Covid cases, and candidate lawn signs have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
In late August, Trudeau was forced to cancel an event over security concerns.
So what's dogged him down?
Trudeau is twisting himself into knots trying to defend his decision to call an election during the pandemic. He says that he needs a clear mandate from voters to push through reforms, as he is currently dependent on allies to stay in power. But his critics argue that there is very little rational reasoning behind the move except for his personal ambition.
Trudeau called the election last month seeking to win the majority of seats in Parliament but polls show that is unlikely and that he might even lose power to O’Toole and the Conservative party.
Trudeau had wanted to capitalise on the fact that Canada is now one of the most fully vaccinated countries in the world, but the country is now in a fourth wave driven by the delta variant. The poll is on 20 September.
Large fiscal deficit
Canada’s economic growth rates have for years remained trapped below two percent at a time when the country’s ageing population threatens to further stifle sluggish labour productivity rates. In the midst of this, Trudeau has managed to accrue unprecedented debts in just a few months since the pandemic.
The Liberals, whose fiscal policy supports the pandemic exceed 23 percent of GDP, plan billions in new spending to support economic recovery if re-elected.
Canada has been debt averse traditionally and the spending has gone up remarkably since the Liberal prime minister took over six years ago. In the past four years, Canada’s federal government debt has more than doubled to 1.4 trillion Canadian dollars.
“Before the pandemic, it’s hard sometimes to think back to life before the pandemic, Mr. Trudeau had already run about $100 billion of debt in good economic times; he raised taxes and was raising spending, unlimited across the board, not strategic, by about seven percent per year,” said Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole.
Instead of coming up with policies to boost funding, the Liberals have promised another C$78 billion in new spending over five years.
Housing prices have risen by more than 70 percent since Trudeau came to power. He is promising to build, preserve, or repair 1.4 million homes over the next four years. He also outlined a new program to let Canadians turn part of their rent into down payment savings and a separate tax-free savings plan for young buyers. The Liberals also promise to ban new foreign ownership of Canadian homes for two years and expand a tax on foreign-owned vacant housing, along with a new anti-flipping tax and more transparency for buyers
The Conservatives on the other hand promise to boost supply by building a million homes over three years and loosening some mortgage requirements.
So what's it he got going for himself?
So far, Trudeau has pledged not to allow so-called "fringe" groups "to dictate how this country gets through this pandemic."
And Felix Mathieu, a politics professor at the University of Winnipeg, said the angry protests and Trudeau's pushback might actually benefit the Liberals, who stumbled in the early days of the campaign.
Although O'Toole has promoted the use of vaccines, "his party remains widely associated with those who vehemently oppose vaccines and Covid containment measures," Mathieu told AFP.
That allows Trudeau to present himself as a defender of public safety, especially as he steps up criticisms of the Tories' rejection of mandatory vaccines, Mathieu explained.
More than 83 percent of those Canadians eligible to get a coronavirus vaccine (12 years or older) have received one dose and 76 percent are fully vaccinated, according to government data.
The Liberal plank proposes mandatory jabs for public servants and travellers on trains, planes and buses. It also earmarks Can$1 billion (US$800 million) to stitch together a patchwork of provincial vaccine passports.
Pollster and former political strategist Tim Powers said the violent protests are "concerning." "The pandemic has intensified people's manner of anger and the way they express anger," Powers told AFP.
But Powers said he agrees that the protests are "providing the Liberals with a useful political prop," allowing Trudeau to be seen fighting against anti-vaccine groups who might threaten a quick post-pandemic return to normalcy -- just as Canadians are heading back to classes and offices.
The 49-year-old Trudeau, the son of the late Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, became the second-youngest prime minister in Canadian history when he was first elected with a majority of seats in Parliament in 2015. He reasserted liberalism in 2015 after almost 10 years of Conservative Party government in Canada, but scandals combined with high expectations damaged his brand.
His father served as prime minister from 1968 to 1984 with a short interruption and remains one of the few Canadian politicians known in other countries.
With inputs from agencies