OTTAWA—No matter who emerges the winner from Monday’s election, the prime minister will take charge of a country divided by an acrimonious election.
And those divisions won’t evaporate once the ballots are counted. Indeed, the election results threaten to further exacerbate political fault lines, along geography, gender and the key issues at play.
Experts point to a few reasons for the divisions. For starters, the issues at the core of this election, such as climate change, have been divisive. Liberals and Conservatives in particular have sought to highlight those divisions to their advantage. And experts note a new trend with partisans identifying emotionally with their party with the result that political debates take on an “us versus them” tone.
“Not in my career have I seen it so polarized in such an extreme fashion,” said veteran pollster Frank Graves.
“You can see clear evidence in the way this election is playing out. The polarization is evident in the key issues underlying the election … I just don’t see any common ground. The gaps are massive, much bigger than they’ve been historically,” said Graves, founder and CEO of EKOS Research.
And many Liberal and Conservatives harbour a disdain bordering on hatred for the rival party’s leader, he said.
That polarization was underscored on Saturday when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was forced to delay a Mississauga rally by almost two hours because of a security threat. When he did appear, he was wearing a protective vest under his dress shirt with extra security personnel in place for his protection.
In the days that followed, he lamented the tone in this election, suggesting it happened despite his focus on “bringing the country together.”
“Yet we find ourselves now in a more polarized, more divisive election than even the 2015 one. I wonder how or if I could have made sure we were still pulling Canadians together,” he said.
But on Wednesday, he pointed the finger squarely at the Conservatives, blaming them for what he branded the “dirtiest, nastiest campaigns based on disinformation that we’ve ever seen in this country.”
“We are, I think, all of us as Canadians, a little saddened to see the polarizing, negative nature of the campaign being run by some or our opponents, which is directly imported from the challenging electoral situations we see in fellow democracies around the world,” he said, while touring Quebec.
Yet few are blameless and certainly not the Liberals, who have made going after Ontario Premier Doug Ford a central part of their strategy from before the election even started.
Trudeau has declared that he needs a strong mandate to “push back against those Conservative premiers who don’t want to do anything for our future.” He’s claimed that his opposition includes unnamed “oil barons.”
Gerald Butts, a friend and former top adviser to Trudeau, drew flak for tweeting a photo of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer shaking hands with a worker wearing a yellow construction vest. “Well, this is subtle. Sometimes a yellow vest is just a yellow vest?” Butts said on social media.
Scheer did speak to protesters who gathered on Parliament Hill earlier this year. But Conservatives saw the Butts tweet as an attempt to link Scheer with the less savoury elements of the yellow vest movement, known for voicing a variety of legitimate concerns but also anti-immigration sentiments. “That’s just despicable,” Scheer said in reaction to the tweet.
Graves said the divisions are broadly seen along gender lines (women favour Liberals, men back the Conservatives), education (college-educated voters for Conservatives, university-educated for Liberals) and geography. If an election was held only from Ontario east, the Liberals would win a massive majority, Graves said. From Manitoba west, the Conservatives would win.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney underscored those regional divisions when he travelled to Ontario earlier this month to campaign against Trudeau, warning that a re-elected Liberal government would be “absolutely devastating to my province.”
“This is, for us, almost existential that we have a change in the federal government,” he said.
Issues too have played a part. Climate change — and the political strategy to deal with it — has divided voters. (Ontario’s Ford government opposes the Liberal plan and even ordered anti-carbon-pricing decals slapped on provincial gas pumps.)
Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has condemned diversity as a “cult” and made cuts to immigration a key part of his election strategy.
Bill 21, Quebec’s controversial law on secularism, has put the issue of religion on the campaign agenda.
And NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, the first leader of a major federal party who is not white, has had to personally confront issues of race and racism in this campaign.
Taken together, it has made for an ugly campaign cocktail that has often overshadowed debate about ideas and political vision.
Graves suggests several reasons for what he calls a “new unhealthy polarization.” The first is economic concerns among Canadians who don’t see themselves getting ahead. Tied to that is what he calls a “cultural backlash.
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“(It’s) particularly strong in those groups who have seen their status and identity threatened by the changes in the new economy,” he said.
Academic Melanee Thomas adds yet another element that she says is being tracked by political scientists in this election — “effective partisanship.”
“This idea that there’s a social identity that is attached to being in your party,” said Thomas, associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary
With that deeper attachment comes hardened, uncompromising attitude towards political rivals.
“This is the idea of us versus them, I’m an in group, they’re an out group and because they’re the out group, they’re bad,” Thomas said an interview.
It feeds the sentiment that political rivals are “out to harm you, it’s an existential threat if they win.”
And she said, the parties have been playing this to their advantage, even though it carries democratic risks over the longer term.
“I am alarmed that there are political elites that understand this is going on and they are deliberately stoking it for short-term electoral gain,” Thomas said.
“I think there’s this assumption that they can just stuff this back in the box. I don’t think they can. I think there is real danger in this,” she said.
Those divisions and the bruising campaign trail rhetoric and acrimony could make it difficult for the parties to find common ground, which will be critical if none of them come up with the 170 seats needed for a majority.
“It’s going to make it extremely difficult to find a consensual framework to move forward,” Graves said. “It will be governable but with tremendous levels of alienation and unhappiness from whoever is not running things.”
“I think whoever wins has got to really think about where are the possible areas of consensus, where can we start building common ground again,” he said.
But there’s little of that happening in the dying days of this election. Rather, with polls suggesting a minority government might be in the cards, Liberals and Conservatives have been trying to rally support with dire predictions about what will happen if their rivals win.
On Wednesday, Scheer claimed the Liberals and New Democrats will do a “coalition” deal that would mean “higher taxes, more deficits, fewer jobs and less money in your pockets.”
Trudeau had his own warning, highlighting the Conservative vow to scrap the federal carbon pricing plan. “Once he’s done that, there’ll be more and more cuts. Cuts to programs, cuts to services,” he said, claiming that Scheer had a “hidden agenda.”