Monday’s national election was a thoroughly Canadian affair. No single party won an outright victory, but all the major party leaders found reason to celebrate the result. Everyone got a medal.
The most important result is that voters reelected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party to a second term, but with a reduced seat count. He returns to Ottawa with 157 seats in the House of Commons, falling short of the 170-seat threshold for a majority. That’s enough to govern, for now, but the other parties could come together and trigger a new election at any time.
Despite the setback, Trudeau celebrated the results. “You are sending our Liberal team back to work, back to Ottawa, with a clear mandate,” he said Monday night.
Trudeau’s main rival, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, also sounded upbeat. “Our party is strong, we are united, and we are on the march,” he announced, even though he is marching back into opposition with 121 seats—short of his hopes but still an improvement from 2015.
Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, saw his party’s seat count drop to just 24, despite a much-advertised “surge” in NDP support in the closing days of the campaign. But you wouldn’t know it was the party’s lowest seat total in more than a decade from Singh’s celebratory speech Monday, which he delivered after dancing through a raucous crowd of supporters. Singh had, after all, run a strong campaign and beaten the low expectations set for him, all while making history as the first person of color to lead a Canadian national party.
The good cheer didn’t stop there: The Greens celebrated the election of three MPs to Parliament, a record for that party, and the separatist Bloc Québécois, which only runs candidates in the French-speaking province of Quebec, came back from the political wilderness with 32 MPs serving under a charismatic new leader, Yves-François Blanchet.
Despite the smiles, Trudeau’s rivals will all feel they should have done better. They could not have asked for a better chance to end his tenure as prime minister, after a series of high-profile scandals tarnished his reputation as a progressive champion committed to “sunny ways,” as he famously promised four years ago. In August, Canada’s ethics commissioner found that Trudeau pushed his justice minister and attorney general to clear a well-connected engineering firm of criminal charges. He ended up firing Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first indigenous person to serve attorney general, from the party over her decision to reveal this pressure campaign. Then, just days into the election campaign, multiple photos surfaced showing Trudeau in blackface and brownface as a younger man. That reputational damage, coupled with Trudeau’s broken promises on reforming elections and improving relations with indigenous communities, still didn’t seem to hurt the Liberals as badly as it arguably should have.
Despite its multiparty system, Canada has only ever elected Liberal and Conservative governments at the federal level. However, many of the most progressive policies—such as public pension plans, marriage equality, and universal single-payer health care—have passed in minority parliaments where the Liberals were under pressure from the left. As election polls showed a tightening race in the waning days of the campaign, many progressives began openly hoping for just such a scenario, with the NDP taking up its traditional third-place role as the “conscience of Parliament.”
A Liberal minority government with pressure from the NDP could be the best possible outcome—at least for the two-thirds of Canadian voters who regularly vote for non-Conservatives. None of the parties will be eager to trigger another election any time soon, fearing both the wrath of voters and their own empty campaign coffers. The NDP and other progressive forces could use this to their advantage, pushing the Liberals to build a universal national drug plan, invest in affordable housing and transit, take measures to aggressively fight climate change, and institute other priorities that the centrist Liberals often campaign on but conveniently forget once in office.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives will count themselves lucky to be rid of the threat on their right, the newly formed People’s Party. Started by former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, who narrowly lost the leadership to Scheer in 2017, the People’s Party could have become a thorn in the larger party’s side, just as UKIP and the Brexit Party have bedeviled the British Conservatives in recent years.
Bernier’s opposition to feminism, multiculturalism, and what he derisively calls “mass immigration” gave greater prominence to an ugly strain of Canadian political thought normally kept out of the mainstream, and success for the People’s Party could have accelerated that trend. Voters ultimately rejected that message after months of grassroots organizing against the party’s policies and candidates, and by the end of the night, even Bernier conceded defeat, leaving the party with no seats in Parliament.
In an election where almost everyone walked away with participation trophies, the real victory may be that the far right left the contest empty-handed.