Image Source : REUTERS Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Toronto: In a major setback for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his Liberal Party suffered an upset in a special election for a district in Toronto, which had been its stronghold for three decades, raising serious doubts about his leadership ahead of next year’s general election. Conservative candidate Don Stewart wrested the Toronto-St Paul’s district from the Liberals by nearly 600 votes, according to Elections Canada.

Stewart won 42.1 per cent of the vote as compared to the Liberal candidate Leslie Church’s 40.5 per cent with all 192 polling stations reporting the results of Monday’s voting. The Liberals had held Toronto-St Paul’s since 1993. It is one of 338 seats in Canada’s House of Commons. Hence, losing Canada’s largest city is not a good sign for Trudeau ahead of the 2025 general election.

“Justin’s position is seriously weakened inside the party,” said Canadian historian Robert Bothwell, adding that some members of the party have just left the government rather than publicly grumble. “The Liberals poured, and were seen to pour, everything they had into this one.” He further speculated that bringing ministers down and mobilising office staff from Ottawa signaled desperation on Trudeau’s part.

Meanwhile, Church said voters “sent us a clear message, that they want us to re-earn their trust.” She said the party has 16 months until the next election and that she will run again. “We heard from many people who were having a hard time,” she added.

What this loss means for Trudeau?

The 52-year-old Trudeau has said he intends to lead the party into the next election. The Trudeau Liberals have been in power since 2015 but are trailing badly in the polls amid concerns over the cost of living. Daniel Beland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, said the Conservatives have gained on the political battlefield by blaming Trudeau for the rising cost-of-living crisis.

Opposition Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre demanded that the prime minister call a snap election after what he described as a “shocking upset”. “Here is the verdict: Trudeau can’t go on like this. He must call a carbon tax election now,” Poilievre said on social media platform X. 

Nelson Wiseman, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, said the Liberals lost the district not because of a wave of support for Poilievre and his party but because of deepening distaste for Trudeau. “The pressure on Trudeau to announce that he will be stepping down is now insurmountable,” Wiseman said, adding that the loss of Toronto-St Paul was won by Liberals even when they had their worst performance in 2011.

If the Liberals cannot win this district, Wiseman said, “how can they hope to win a general election?”, said Wiseman, adding that the already anxious Liberal caucus will now go into a kind of panic mode. He noted the average shelf life of prime ministers since the 1950s has been about a decade.

Canada’s general election

The next federal election must be held by October 2025 and a range of polls show the Liberals, who have been in power since November 2015, would lose badly to the Conservatives. The latest loss indicates Liberals in less safe Toronto area seats might be vulnerable, underlining the challenge for Trudeau.

Some political commentators have mused that the Liberals might do better if they moved on from Trudeau, who has so far insisted he will fight the next election. Names of potential leadership candidates include former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc, a close Trudeau friend. However, party leaders in Canada are chosen by special conventions which are held on fixed dates, which makes it almost impossible to ditch a leader who does not want to leave.

Trudeau reasserted the country’s liberal identity in 2015 after almost 10 years of Conservative rule. His legacy includes opening the doors wide to immigration. He also legalised cannabis and brought in a carbon tax to fight climate change. Prior to that, his father Pierre Trudeau led the nation for almost 16 years.

On the other hand, the Conservatives say they have four priorities: axing a carbon tax introduced by the Liberals, addressing the government’s budget deficit, tackling a housing crisis and cracking down on crime. Poilievre, who is running for the next PM has long targeted Trudeau for inflationary taxes, higher mortgage payments and rising debt.

(with inputs from agencies)

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