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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, both seen here on June 14, 2018, are both unpopular with many Canadians.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

By law, Justin Trudeau has until Sept. 15 to visit the Governor-General and ask her to issue the writ for the Oct. 21 general election, but that hardly matters.

The end of the Labour Day long weekend – when people reluctantly bid farewell to summer and turn their attention to the coming fall agenda – signals the real beginning of the campaign, which is marked by an unpleasant reality: Most Canadians don’t want either Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau or Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as prime minister. Both of them are unpopular.

This election is shaping up as a negative referendum. If the question is: Do you want four more years of Mr. Trudeau, then Mr. Scheer is likely to win. If the question is: Do you want Mr. Scheer to become prime minister, then Mr. Trudeau could win a second term.

“We have seen an erosion of trust and confidence in all public institutions, ranging from politics through to the church and corporations,” says Nik Nanos of Nanos Research, which conducts polling for The Globe and Mail.

“Perhaps the new paradigm is which party or leader do people mistrust least. There are no tribes, only circles of mistrust and cynicism.”

An Angus Reid poll released Thursday shows that 63 per cent of Canadians hold an unfavourable view of the Liberal Leader, twice the 31 per cent whose view is favourable. (The remainder are not sure.)

But Mr. Scheer is hardly more popular; 52 per cent have an unfavourable view, 38 per cent, a favourable one.

(The online survey was conducted among a representative randomized sample of 1,534 Canadians. A comparable probability sample would have a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

That perception of unpopularity is buttressed by an August poll from Ipsos that showed only three in 10 Canadians believe that Mr. Scheer (32 per cent) or Mr. Trudeau (30 per cent) would make the best prime minister.

At this stage in the campaign, both parties are focusing on tearing down their opponent as much as possible. The Conservatives have latched onto the Ethics Commissioner’s report, released in August, which concluded Mr. Trudeau repeatedly broke the Conflict of Interest Act when he sought to persuade then-attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the prosecution of the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. Mr. Trudeau does not agree with the report.

The Liberals, in turn, accuse Mr. Scheer of having a hidden agenda to limit abortion and LGBTQ rights, which the Conservative Leader strongly denies.

Such negative campaigning is likely to increase voter apathy and lower turnout, which surged from 61 per cent in the 2011 campaign to 69 per cent in 2015.

For Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, the strong dislike for both leaders suggests that the phenomenon known as partisan sorting, or cleavage politics – in which voters sort themselves into one values-based camp or another along such lines as age, gender, education and geography, and then demonize those in the other camp – is accelerating.

This cleavage has been deepening in the United States for decades, she noted in an interview. Now, in Canada, “We have, very quickly, in the last decade, started to move in this direction as well.

“It becomes ‘us versus them’ and it becomes really quite charged.”

But not everyone is so filled with partisan passion. In Southern Ontario and B.C.’s Lower Mainland, suburban voters tend to swing back and forth, in one election coalescing with downtown progressives; in another lining up with rural conservatives.

And in Quebec, having embraced and abandoned first the Bloc Québécois and then the New Democrats, voters appear to be splitting their vote several ways, at the NDP’s expense.

Issues matter as well, of course. How economically secure do middle-class, car-commuting suburban voters feel? How worried are they by the floods and forest fires associated with global warming?

Howard Ramos, a political sociologist at Dalhousie University, sees the election shaping up as a choice “based on green energy and technology or one that shores up the traditional resource sector and is a laggard on the climate front.”

If so, then those who put the fight against global warming front and centre will support the carbon tax that the Liberals have imposed in provinces whose governments lack one of their own.

But those who feel that Canada’s marginal contribution to climate change doesn’t warrant major economic sacrifice will gravitate to the Conservatives.

Anna Esselment, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo, believes that undecided voters will be looking at the question of leadership. In an era of growing economic uncertainty, catastrophic fires in the Amazon and increasing tensions between Canada and China, “our anxiety this time around may lead us to be less concerned about personalities and leaders, and more about leadership," she said.

“Voters are usually economically retrospective – am I better off than four years ago?” she added. But in this election, “it’s my sense that more people are thinking about the future, because the future looms large and for many it’s not very rosy.”

Then there is the expected unexpected: the issue (there’s almost always at least one in any election) that doesn’t appear to be a major factor in voting intentions at first, but that becomes pivotal during the campaign. In 2015, it was Syrian refugees, who were fleeing the carnage of civil war.

Although polls show the issue did not swing many votes, the campaign’s narrative became fixated on the photo of Alan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach, the young boy who drowned attempting to reach safety. The Liberals promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by Christmas, an idea that many voters supported. It may have helped Mr. Trudeau become prime minister.

This time, China might be the flashpoint. As the violence escalates in Hong Kong, Canada’s troubled relations with the regime in Beijing – which is holding Canadians captive and imposing bans on Canadian agrifood exports, in retaliation for extradition proceedings against a Huawei executive undertaken by Canada at the request of the United States – could rapidly worsen if the Communist government sends in troops to quell the pro-democracy protests.

The Conservatives advocate a stronger stand in opposition to Chinese actions; the Liberals prefer a more balanced approach. If police violence worsens, or China sends troops into Hong Kong, how Canada should react could become an election issue.

With the Conservatives and Liberals each campaigning on the other party’s unfitness to lead, disenchanted voters may turn to smaller parties. The NDP under Jagmeet Singh appears seriously disorganized. Many ridings still haven’t nominated a candidate, fundraising is weak and Mr. Singh has not made a positive impression on voters. To what extent, if any, will Green Party Leader Elizabeth May be able to capitalize on the NDP’s troubles? In this campaign, the Greens will be closely watched.

And on the right, the political class warily eyes Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, which promotes nativist policies such as severely reducing immigration and abandoning official multiculturalism. Thus far, the party has made little headway. Those who fear the importation into Canada of the ugly politics of U.S. President Donald Trump or authoritarian populists in Europe are hoping things stay that way.

The election is seven weeks away. Given the strident tone both the Liberals and Conservatives have adopted, things could get choppy.

If the ballot question "does boil down to ‘the other guy is even worse,' I think we’re going to see even greater numbers of Canadians expressing disappointment with the system as a whole,” leading to increased polarization, Prof. Esselment fears.

“Our problems are big ones, and this is usually the time when party leaders and platforms must rise to the occasion, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen.”

If this election proves that we are living in a time when Canadian politics becomes increasingly factional, partisan and extreme, then that will be everybody’s loss.

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