It may have started as the election no one except Justin Trudeau wanted, but the current trajectory of the federal campaign indicates this might wind up being anything but the election Mr. Trudeau needs.
Since the writ dropped on Aug. 15 for the vote that will take place on Sept. 20, polls have showed support for Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal party headed in a mostly downward direction. According to the Globe and Mail/CTV/Nanos Research poll tracker, Erin O’Toole and Conservative party have made steady incremental gains, turning a five-point deficit at the campaign’s outset into a one-point advantage by late this week.
Of course, poll results will inevitably ebb and flow, and as the most astute election observers will attest, the only poll that really counts is on election day. Notwithstanding that caution about reading too much into the numbers, however, the trend line so far must be of great concern to Mr. Trudeau, whose presumed sole intention in calling this opportunistic election two years early was to translate his minority government’s generally effective pandemic response into a majority mandate.
In that regard, things are not looking up for Mr. Trudeau.
The problem is not hard to divine: while the Liberals had firm control over the conditions under which the election would be called, it turns out Mr. Trudeau had absolutely no control over what could turn out to be the defining issue of this election: Afghanistan.
While the leaders and candidates fan out across the country to extol their parties’ platform promises, not much in the way of individual "if-elected" pledges has seemed to gain much traction. That probably would have been OK in Mr. Trudeau’s mind, as it likely would have meant the public’s focus remained squarely on the pandemic — a subject of necessary ongoing concern on which the Liberals’ performance has been generally lauded.
But the U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan, long in planning but abrupt in execution and calamitous in terms of its immediate after-effects creating a massive humanitarian crisis, has forced Canada and every other nation involved in the allied force that occupied and fought in Afghanistan for the past two decades to assess and confront their contributions to the currently unfolding horror and despair.
It isn’t a garden-variety "election issue" on which the opposition parties can seek to gain advantage by proposing a better plan. Given the relatively low profile of Canada’s involvement during the past decade and the rapid unravelling for which Canada holds the most minimal of responsibility, Afghanistan was likely not even on the other parties’ electioneering radar until about a week ago.
But it is an issue from which the opposition leaders and parties will benefit, simply by not being Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals, who have the political misfortune of being at the helm when the crisis arrived.
In the coming weeks, and in particular during the televised leaders’ debates scheduled for Sept. 8 and 9, efforts will be made by all parties to advance their proposed agendas and argue the merits of their policies and promises. It’s possible that one or more domestic-priority issues will emerge as legitimate grounds on which decisive debates will unfold.
In the meantime, however, the Afghan crisis will loom large over Canada’s mostly unwanted federal election, offering the opposition parties an advantage they neither sought nor created, and very possibly handing Mr. Trudeau an outcome much different from what he expected.