Skip to main content

Justin Trudeau led the Liberals to another victory, but with a diminished mandate that will test his ability to lead a minority government in a divided country.

Mr. Trudeau just months ago appeared poised to cruise to another majority, but found himself in a tightly fought campaign – one that revealed an increasingly polarized electorate and a country split along regional lines.

The race narrowed considerably with the return to prominence of the Bloc Québécois, which dampened Mr. Trudeau’s prospects in Quebec, and attacks on Mr. Trudeau’s credibility from the Green Party and the NDP on the left and the Conservatives on the right.

His attempts to find a compromise that would permit him to tackle climate change while supporting the energy industry left him deeply unpopular on the Prairies and hurt his chances in Quebec. With those two regions pulling in different directions, Mr. Trudeau faces a complex task in the years ahead.

Montreal-area MP Mélanie Joly, who served in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet, said there are no concerns about Mr. Trudeau’s continued leadership under a projected minority government.

“I think there’s no question about that. And I think that the Prime Minister has had a very demanding but successful campaign and we will govern to represent Canadians the best we can.”

On Monday, hundreds of supporters burst into cheers and applause at Liberal headquarters in Montreal as television networks projected a minority for the party amid chants of "four more years."

The Liberal Leader framed his minority election Monday night as a “clear mandate,” despite Conservatives winning the popular vote.

“From coast to coast to coast, tonight Canadians rejected fear and negativity. They rejected cuts and austerity and they voted in favour of a progressive agenda and strong action on climate change," he said.

But the result was far different from the commanding victory of 2015 and will mean the Liberals must navigate a more complex Parliament.

Negotiation and deal-making will play an important role in the months ahead. Mr. Trudeau will be in a position where he will have to work with other parties to pursue his legislative agenda, although it is not yet clear which parties he will be able to rely on for support.

“I think you’ll see discussions on electoral reform revived. I think the framework for pharmacare will certainly be a topic of discussion,” said Susan Smith, a political commentator and principal with Bluesky Strategy. “And then there’s climate change.”

Marc Miller, Montreal-area Liberal candidate and incumbent who is close to Mr. Trudeau, visited with the Liberal Leader earlier in the evening and said he was feeling good.

“He’s doing very well,” Mr. Miller said. “If there was any doubt about whether he cared about his country, in the last three days you could see the energy and the forcefulness in what he believes in and I think Canadians voted as a result.”

Mr. Trudeau was re-elected in his Montreal-area riding of Papineau, which he has represented since 2008.

But having lost the Liberal majority, Mr. Trudeau will also face questions from caucus members who may feel some of the party’s stumbles can be blamed on its leader and his inner circle. The personal enthusiasm for Mr. Trudeau that was so apparent four years ago seemed to have dimmed during the campaign. The photographs of Mr. Trudeau in blackface and brownface, although dismissed by many as too insignificant to shift their vote, cut to the core of his personal appeal to a young and diverse Canadian population. The long-running SNC-Lavalin scandal raised questions about his judgment and his willingness to circumvent a legal process to help a company avoid prosecution.

Mr. Trudeau will have to re-examine whether staking a middle ground in the climate change debate remains his best option. He was attacked on both sides for not doing enough to get Canadian oil to market and for doing too much by purchasing a pipeline.

Debates have played an important role in Canadian elections, and it was there that Mr. Trudeau proved himself in 2015, helping to propel the Liberals from third-party status to government. This time he performed reasonably well, but as the front-runner was attacked on all sides.

He also chose not to participate in the debate on foreign affairs, despite the upheaval roiling global politics. That debate would have presented an opportunity to contrast his differences with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on an issue such as Brexit, which Mr. Scheer supported. Similarly, Canada’s relationship with the United States has been tested by the presidency of Donald Trump, and Mr. Trudeau could have pointed to the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement as a success. Instead, foreign policy received scant attention.

Heading into election day, the biggest question for Mr. Trudeau was whether Liberal voters and campaign volunteers would turn out the way they had in 2015. The excitement about Mr. Trudeau as a bright, young candidate with a new team went a long way then.

But this time the enthusiasm for Mr. Trudeau was more muted. The crowds were smaller and lukewarm at times, the questions about his leadership more persistent. Whereas he was once “just not ready,” as his opponents framed it, this time he was a “fraud and a phony,” in Mr. Scheer’s debate attack. The images of a younger Mr. Trudeau in blackface contrasted sharply with those of him opening his arms to Syrian refugees.

A similarly difficult campaign befell Mr. Trudeau’s father in the election of 1972, according to John English, a historian, former Liberal MP and biographer of the elder Trudeau. After riding a wave of enthusiastic support to a majority in 1968, Pierre Trudeau’s government was reduced to a slim minority.

“I do think there is an eerie parallel between the two,” said Prof. English. “I think there will be the same reaction as after the ‘72 campaign, when the party seemed to say ‘God Save the King and hang his advisers.’ ”

After 1972, the elder Trudeau moved his politics leftward, and given the rise in political polarization around the world, the Liberal Party will likely be faced with that option again.

There was even evidence of vitriolic hatred toward Justin Trudeau. Although his campaign never explained the nature of any threats, a security concern pushed him to wear a bulletproof vest under his shirt at a public rally – a troubling moment in Canadian political history.