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Analysis-Canada’s Trudeau, far behind in polls, remains the Liberals’ best chance

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© FILE PHOTO: Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the close of the Seventh Assembly of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada August 25, 2023. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo

By Steve Scherer

OTTAWA () – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had a tough year at home and on the global stage, pushing his support as low as it has ever been, but his backers still see him as the Liberal Party’s best chance to secure a historic fourth term in the next election.

Trudeau, 51, has defied low polling numbers before, to win three elections, starting in 2015. A federal election is not due until October 2025, a decade after he first took power. Right now, most opinion polls show Trudeau significantly trailing his newest rival, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre.

Last month, the Conservatives led the Liberals 39% to 30%, an Ipsos poll showed. Some 60% of Canadians want Trudeau to step down to allow Liberal Party members to pick a new leader, up 6 points compared with December 2022, a separate Ipsos poll said.

That does not look likely. While some in his caucus have grumbled about his government’s lethargic response to Poilievre’s repeated attacks on cost-of-living issues, no Liberal lawmakers have openly challenged Trudeau.

The most frequently cited potential alternatives are Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and former central banker Mark Carney. But none are perceived to be as scrappy and determined at retail politics as Trudeau is, Liberal insiders and pollsters say.

“When he is on form, he can light up a room and the others just can’t,” said one Liberal who played a key role in the 2021 electoral campaign. The other potential Liberal leaders do not “have anywhere near Trudeau’s wattage,” the person added.

No Canadian prime minister since Wilfrid Laurier in 1908 has won four consecutive elections. At stake for Trudeau are legacy policies including a bolstered social safety net and measures positioning Canada to be a global leader in the low-carbon economy.

There is “no evidence” the Liberals will pick a new leader and “time is running out,” said Frank Graves, founder of polling company Ekos Research. “I’m not convinced that an alternative would necessarily be any better to lead them in the next election” because Trudeau is “still a formidable campaigner”.

‘HOUDINI’

Trudeau has repeatedly said he plans to run and officials close to him say he relishes the opportunity to battle Poilievre.

Trudeau has had a terrible year personally and politically. In August, he announced separation from his wife of 18 years. The Canadian economy is stressed with interest rates seemingly entrenched at a 22-year high and people reeling under a high cost of living and a deepening housing crisis.

Internationally, Trudeau’s bombshell announcement last month linking Indian agents to the murder of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia has put Canada in an awkward position with allies who are seeking closer ties with New Delhi to counter China’s rise.

In its latest poll published in September, Angus Reid Institute polling company has the Conservatives at 39%, enough for a majority in the House of Commons, versus 27% for the Liberals.

When trailing so clearly in polls “the power structure around a leader starts to disintegrate at the edges, a little bit at first and then all at once. We haven’t seen that with Justin Trudeau,” said Shachi Kurl, president of Angus Reid.

Meanwhile, Poilievre is building his own narrative with TV ads portraying him as a family man.

“Pierre Poilievre is doing an amazing job of selling himself to Canadians,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of polling company Ipsos Public Affairs. But it’s not “like there’s Poilievre-mania. It’s really just a desire for change,” he said.

In 2015, Ekos had the Liberals down 22 percentage points in the spring and Trudeau won a majority in the fall. In the middle of the 2019 campaign decades-old pictures of Trudeau in black face emerged, and he still won, though Liberals were reduced to a minority government.

“We’ve seen him down this far before and we’ve seen him climb back up,” Kurl said. “He has sort of been the Houdini of escaping terrible polling numbers before.”

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