TORONTO — Four years after Justin Trudeau and his center-left Liberal Party won a breakthrough election victory, scandals and stumbles both personal and political have taken the shine off Canada’s youthful prime minister, and he goes into national elections Monday with a rising job disapproval rating and a stiff challenge from the country’s revived Conservative opposition.
Heading into the six-week election campaign with about 34% support, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals hoped the party could win a majority of seats in Parliament and give him a second four-year term in Ottawa.
But just a week into the campaign, 19-year-old photos emerged of Mr. Trudeau wearing “brownface” makeup at different costume parties. Then came the nationally televised debates where Mr. Trudeau abandoned his positive messaging and leveled personal attacks against Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer.
After the brownface scandal broke, support for Mr. Trudeau dropped 20 points in four days, said pollster Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research. Although the prime minister’s Liberal Party regained its small lead in the polls, he said, that incident rattled voters and damaged Mr. Trudeau’s brand.
Flare-ups of raw political rage and bigotry against foreigners also have marked this election campaign.
Canadian singer/songwriter Angella Johnson said she has never before encountered the level of uninformed hatred directed at Mr. Trudeau.
People have a lack of faith in the system, politicians in general and the government, “but they don’t know why,” she said.
Mr. Trudeau’s supporters say that despite the stumbles, he has an impressive four-year record as prime minister.
Canada’s economy has been growing, unemployment and child poverty rates are down, relations with aboriginal people have improved, and the government has moved to preserve sensitive wilderness areas. Despite some tricky ups and downs, Mr. Trudeau successfully concluded a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the Trump administration and Mexico, and pushed — unsuccessfully — to unite environmental, aboriginal and energy industry groups around a plan to build pipelines to ship oil from Alberta to seaports in British Columbia.
Four years ago, Mr. Trudeau was the fresh, youthful face promising to end a decade of Conservative rule. Mr. Scheer, a self-described minivan-driving father of five who is seven years younger than the prime minister, has campaigned as a classic small-government conservative, backing market deregulation, lower taxes and government spending, and supporting the country’s struggling oil and natural gas industries.
He vows as one of his first acts in office to repeal a carbon tax approved by the Liberals as part of Mr. Trudeau’s agenda to fight climate change.
But Mr. Scheer has also sharpened his tone in the candidate debates, calling Mr. Trudeau at one point a “compulsive liar” who does “not deserve to govern this country.”
Mr. Trudeau has responded in kind, while appealing to voters of other leftist and center-left parties, by warning about what he calls going back to the bad old days of Conservative government.
“We know that the Conservative Party is running one of the dirtiest, nastiest campaigns based on disinformation that we’ve ever seen in this country,” he told a Montreal rally this week. “And it’s no surprise that they don’t want to share whose deep pockets are funding their attacks on Canadians, on other parties and on the most important fight of our generation: the fight against climate change.”
An aggregation of polls this week from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. gave Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals a 51% chance of either winning outright or being able to create a governing coalition, to 48% for Mr. Scheer’s Conservatives. Both major parties attracted less than a third of the overall vote in the compilation of polls.
Mr. Trudeau portrays himself as a defender of liberal values such as multiculturalism, support for refugees and women’s rights. But that approach has proved to be a double-edged sword in the nitty-gritty of governing.
Pat Gossage, chairman of Media Profile, said Mr. Trudeau’s constant “virtue signaling” has left him vulnerable to character attacks. Mr. Scheer calls Mr. Trudeau a fraud and reminds his audiences of what he says are the prime minister’s multiple acts of hypocrisy.
He vacationed on a private island owned by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam, and may have discussed business deals with him. A searing scandal involving the government’s attempts to protect a major Quebec construction firm from legal punishment led to the firing of Mr. Trudeau’s highest-profile aboriginal Cabinet minister and the resignation of one of Mr. Trudeau’s closest aides for his role in the scandal.
Further to the political right, Maxime Bernier, leader of the new People’s Party of Canada, has accused Mr. Trudeau of “radical multiculturalism” and dividing Canada into “little tribes.”
The critique of Mr. Trudeau’s all-encompassing liberalism appears to have hit a nerve. Polls show that 70% of Quebecers support a recently enacted law banning the province’s teachers, police and other government employees from wearing visible religious symbols such as the Islamic headscarf, Jewish yarmulke and Sikh turbans.
The leader of Canada’s leftist New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, a practicing Sikh, is easily identifiable by his uncut beard and turban. While Mr. Singh was campaigning in Montreal, a local man took issue with the NDP leader’s public display of religiosity.
“You should cut your turban off, and you look like a Canadian,” the man said.
Amrit Kaur, a Sikh woman challenging Quebec’s religious symbols ban, said attacks on people’s religion and personal differences are growing because politicians are stoking anger.
“It’s the trickle-down effects of the politics,” she told the Montreal Gazette. “To some people, no matter how much you integrate, no matter how much you try, you’ll never be Canadian, you’ll never be a Quebecer and you’ll never shed the immigrant label. It’s sad.”
Ironically, Mr. Singh’s widely praised performance in the campaign debate of the party leaders is credited with reinvigorating support for the NDP.
Mr. Trudeau appears to be a victim of the high hopes and soaring expectations that greeted his victory in 2015. He became a social media star, sparking envy from President Obama for his dark styled hair and attracting meme-worthy appraising side glances from first daughter Ivanka Trump on a February 2017 White House visit.
Nick Kouvalis, principal strategist of Campaign Research, said Mr. Trudeau has disappointed a lot of people. They think he is a hypocrite who “comes clean [only] when he’s caught and has never had to own up to the consequences.”
The campaign has featured a worrying dynamic for the Liberals, Mr. Kouvalis said. Party stalwarts appear less committed to Mr. Trudeau even as polls show Mr. Scheer gaining support among Conservatives.
In the first poll taken after Mr. Trudeau was sworn in as prime minister, more than 60% of Canadians approved of him. In the most recent Campaign Research poll, 54% of Canadians said they disapproved of Mr. Trudeau’s job performance.
Analysts still give the nod to Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party to win the election Monday even if they get fewer votes than the Conservatives. This is because the Canadian Parliament is set up like the House of Representatives, with more populous provinces electing more representatives. Conservative support is heavily concentrated in Canada’s western provinces, and Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are ahead in Ontario and Quebec. Together, those two provinces elect more than two-thirds of the representatives in Parliament.
If the Liberals lose their majority, then Mr. Trudeau will need the support of other parties to continue governing. Mr. Trudeau’s father, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, faced that same situation in 1972 and governed for the next two years with help from the NDP.
But the elections could end in an upset if the Conservatives and the separatist Bloc Quebecois win enough seats to challenge the Liberals as a governing alliance.
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