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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau casts his ballot on Sept. 20, 2021. Trudeau's Liberals won a minority government.Reuters

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took a risky political gamble, triggering a snap election during the fourth wave of the pandemic in pursuit of a new majority mandate.

He ended winning another minority mandate instead.

When speaking to supporters at Liberal Party headquarters in Montreal early Tuesday morning, Mr. Trudeau said there are still votes to be counted but millions of Canadians have chosen a progressive plan.

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“Some have talked about division. but that’s not what I see,” Mr. Trudeau said. “That’s not what I’ve seen these past weeks across the country. I see Canadians standing together.”

He also said the moment faced by the country demands “real, important” change and Parliament and the government has been given “clear direction.”

Mr. Trudeau, who won a strong majority in 2015, was reduced to a minority government in 2019 with 157 seats. Before calling the election, he had been expected to sweep to a majority based on his government’s handling of the pandemic. The Liberals had also hoped to capitalize on Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s failure to gain traction with voters in the run-up to the start of the campaign.

Mr. Trudeau did not address in his speech early Tuesday morning why an election was called that ultimately ended up a very similar result.

“I hear you when you say you just want to get back to the things you love, not worry about this pandemic or about an election, that you just want to know that your members of Parliament of all stripes will have you back through this crisis and beyond,” he said.

On Aug. 15, when Mr. Trudeau visited Governor-General Mary Simon to trigger the election, Kabul fell to the Taliban. The timing invited questions about whether the federal government would be able to focus on a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan while in caretaker mode during the election. (At the time, Mr. Trudeau said he was routinely briefed on the matter, and that Ottawa was committed to bringing Afghans to Canada.)

Peter Donolo, the vice-chairman of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada and a top lieutenant to former prime minister Jean Chrétien, said that Mr. Trudeau never really articulated a compelling reason for an early election. Mr. Donolo said the real reason the election was called was that Mr. Trudeau thought he could win a majority.

The question of election timing never went away, because it became the distillation of many criticisms of the Liberals, Mr. Donolo added.

“Canadians are still gripped by the pandemic and its impacts on their lives,” he said.

“They want government to govern. The dissonance of an election campaign while they were still struggling to get their lives to normal was a daily reminder for them of the disconnect between the Liberals and their own reality.”

When a reporter asked Mr. Trudeau at the end of the campaign whether this was his last election, the Liberal Leader replied by saying that he was not going to engage in speculation, but that more work is required on key issues such as child care and housing. He added that he is “nowhere near done yet.”

With the Liberals having failed to secure a majority, Mr. Trudeau’s leadership could be thrown into question. Other potential leadership aspirants – such as Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Innovation Minister François Philippe Champagne and former Bank of Canada and Bank of England governor Mark Carney – are waiting in the wings for when he retires.

Mr. Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, told CBC News that he did not see any reason for Mr. Trudeau to resign for calling an election and being unable to win a majority.

“I think retiring from politics would be the furthest thing from Justin Trudeau’s mind right now … it’s a four-year mandate unless the government is bought down,” he said.

Former Liberal Party whip Andrew Leslie said in an interview prior to Monday’s vote that there would be consequences for Mr. Trudeau within the caucus and party if he did not secure a majority.

“The Prime Minister called this election during a pandemic, and yet several months ago he said he would never do that. So now that he called an election during a pandemic and cost the country $600-million, I wonder what the Prime Minister is going to think about if the results aren’t that which he promised his party?” said Mr. Leslie, who did not run in the 2019 election.

Pollster Nik Nanos, founder and chief data scientist of Nanos Research, said Mr. Trudeau could not have survived as leader under a Conservative minority government. But, he said, the Liberal Leader’s political capital and brand will be diminished regardless of the election’s outcome.

Mr. Trudeau’s decision to send Canadians to the polls was heavily criticized by other parties, who called it unnecessary and selfish amid increased concerns about the Delta variant of the coronavirus in Canada. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam confirmed in August that the country was in a fourth wave of the pandemic.

Mr. Trudeau defended his decision to trigger the election by saying that Canadians needed the chance to choose how to finish the fight against COVID-19, and how to “build back better” during the recovery from the pandemic.

The Liberal Leader tried to convince Canadians that he needed a new mandate to deal with the pandemic and looming economic challenges. He accused the opposition parties of holding up legislation.

On his last day of campaigning, Mr. Trudeau attacked the Premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan for backtracking on their earlier decisions to loosen COVID-19 restrictions amid a surge in infections, and warned the country that Mr. O’Toole was not serious about confronting the pandemic.

Mr. Donolo said that the “anti-vax mobs” present in this election, as well as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s abrupt reversal of his government’s lax pandemic approach, would have been a help to the Liberals under any circumstances. But, he said, these things became even more helpful because of Mr. O’Toole’s refusal to ensure his candidates were vaccinated, which turned into a symbol of the Conservative Leader’s “overall weakness” on the vaccine file.

During the 36-day campaign, Mr. Trudeau repeatedly criticized Mr. O’Toole for not insisting that all Conservative candidates be vaccinated, and for not supporting the Liberal government’s promise to require inoculations for activities like travel on planes, trains and cruise ships. Mr. O’Toole said he supported the use of rapid COVID-19 tests instead.

The Liberal Leader also highlighted his party’s flagship pledges, including $10-a-day child care and action on climate change. And he took pains to remind voters of the Liberal record on the pandemic response, including the government’s decisions to create economic aid programs to help jobless Canadians and small businesses.

Another defining factor for the Liberal campaign was COVID-19 safety. Mr. Trudeau’s team tried to hold as many campaign events outdoors as possible to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. But holding events outside posed security challenges, as Mr. Trudeau was repeatedly forced to fend off angry protesters.