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The centre holds in the Great White North

  • Published at 06:02 pm October 25th, 2019
Photo: Reuters

Justin Trudeau just survived a close call

As Canada’s election results come in, it is plain that the right-wing parties will not be forming the government. Rather, albeit in a straitened and more humble form, Justin Trudeau is likely to continue as prime minister with a plurality rather than a majority in parliament. 

It is hardly the case of merely another change of government in a country fondly referred to as the Great White North. Au contraire, few elections in Canada could have been of more import to the post-WWII consensus, in Western democracies, of the liberal democratic world order.

As the rest of the West, not the least Canada’s powerful southern neighbour, were falling like dominoes to the forces of ethno-nationalist populism fuelled by resentment of the “other,” Canada bucked the trend and elected an exuberant, optimistic, and youngish internationalist to be its head of government in 2015 and, it seems, did not want to part with him yet. 

With a beleaguered Angela Merkel of Germany and Emmanuel Macron of France, Canada’s Justin Trudeau has held the informal leadership of a globalist Western alliance that continues to put a premium on free trade, succour for genuine refugees fleeing persecution and war, and lasting transnational institutions that can continue to check the depredations of tyrants from Moscow to Manila. 

Nonetheless, the Merkel-Macron-Trudeau trio has been getting lonelier by the year with the US, UK, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and even Australia falling one by one under the thrall of ethno-nationalist leaders who have no moral scruples forming transactional alliances with Putin’s Russia to advance their own domestic agendas fuelled by populism which, in turn, is itself stoked by economic globalization and technological advancement of humanity.

The 2019 federal general election would have determined if Canada was the next Western domino to fall. 

Had Trudeau’s Liberals given way to a government led by the Conservative Party of Andrew Scheer, at the very least it could have been expected that Ottawa would become much more conducive to President Trump’s approach to world affairs, leaving France and Germany to be the last holdouts of a perhaps bygone era of idealistic liberal democratic ascendancy in the West. 

Though Scheer has regularly emphasized his centrist credentials, his party’s close association with many nativist elements and climate sceptics indicate a more ambiguous agenda. 

The Conservative Party leader’s own recent past of attacking same-sex unions and aligning himself closely with several rightwing religious causes -- stances that he promised will not be brought into the realm of public policy had he become PM -- made him quite admired by the  base of President Trump’s supporters who are, otherwise, not fond of Canadian politicians. 

It would not surprise too many observers of Scheer’s political rise to note that he is the son of an American church deacon.

Though the final numbers of the messy Canadian election are to be sorted out, it is quite obvious that Scheer’s “Trump-lite” campaign north of the border did not convince enough of his countrymen in the right districts to change Canada’s trajectory on the world stage. 

To paraphrase a famous line from a World War I general, the centre held this time.

Parliamentary elections which result in pluralities rather than majorities -- in countries where actual elections take place without the intimidation of police and “student activists” -- require compromises, bartering, and consensus on an issue by issue basis. Canada will go through that and more. 

Shorn of his glamour to some extent, and his majority to a lesser measure, Trudeau will likely move a little left on the climate and a little right on free trade, neither of which is a bad idea from the perspective of unifying a large and diverse country after an unusually divisive election. 

As a savvy political survivor who has politics in his very DNA, he is likely not to forget that even as his party got more seats than the main opposition Conservatives, the latter did receive a slightly higher proportion of the overall national vote. Prudence would also dictate that the PM not be oblivious to the fact that his party got wiped out in the energy-rich and the growing province of Alberta where latent separatist demands may well become louder in response to any additional environmental regulations from Ottawa, putting the minority Liberal ministry in a bind that will require deftness to navigate.

It seems that Pierre Trudeau’s son has inherited some of the intrepidness of the father and survived a close call. Whether he can govern with the additional cross-cutting fissures laid bare by such a close election will determine if the son is on his way to someday becoming the giant that the father was. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer in social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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