MONTREAL, QUEBEC – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will appear for his first debate of the 2019 election on Wednesday, facing off against main rival Andrew Scheer of the Conservative Party just three weeks ahead of the knife-edge vote.
They will spar in French, looking to sway votes in the key battleground of Quebec, where one quarter of the 338 seats in parliament are up for grabs.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May and former foreign minister Maxime Bernier, who split with the Tories to form the People’s Party, were not invited to the TVA televised debate as neither party elected an MP from Quebec in the last ballot in 2015.
Two more debates — one in French and one in English — are scheduled for Oct. 7 and 10.
Wednesday evening Trudeau will go toe-to-toe with his opponents in one-on-one match-ups as well as in open floor exchanges.
In such a close election, “this is an important debate, especially for francophone voters,” McGill University politics professor Daniel Beland told AFP.
“It could affect the race in a big way,” he said.
Whereas Trudeau shined in 2015 debates that led to the Liberals’ landslide victory and seems at ease at town hall meetings where he fields questions from Canadians, now he has a target on his back and has the most to lose, Beland said.
Ahead of the debate, Trudeau jumped into a boxing ring for a workout — imagery that bolsters the view that he is against the ropes fighting for his political survival and needs to land a knock-out blow in these debates.
As the incumbent prime minister facing off against three untested party leaders, Trudeau is expected to be hit with a barrage of attacks from the others.
His other two opponents are New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh and Yves-Francois Blanchet of the Bloc Quebecois.
Halfway through the campaign, nationwide polls show the Conservatives and Liberals remain in a statistical dead heat, despite significant tax and climate policy announcements by all parties and a black-face scandal that hurt Trudeau’s personal popularity but not his party’s standing in the polls.
The Liberals are currently leading in Quebec, but the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which had been presumed dead after a dismal showing in the 2015 election that resulted in only 10 seats for it in parliament — two short of official party status — has seen an unexpected surge.
Quebec separatism — after two failed referendums in 1980 and 1995 on splitting away from the rest of Canada — is a no-go nowadays.
But the Bloc has tapped into lingering Quebec nationalism to revive its fortunes, arguing that it is best positioned to defend the province’s interests within the federation.
Blanchet, a former provincial minister and television analyst, has also closely aligned his party’s policies with those of the hugely popular Quebec government of Francois Legault. That includes restrictions on religious symbols and dress, and more say on immigration.
But its revival could split votes on the left, notably in rural Quebec where the Liberals must make gains, risking handing electoral victory to the Conservatives.
“Canadians will watch those debates … and they will make a choice, a choice on the direction they want the country to take,” Trudeau said Tuesday.
Singh, who is looking to capitalize on disenchantment with Trudeau, said he looked forward to this first opportunity to directly hold the Liberal prime minister’s feet to the fire over his “broken promises.”
Scheer has struggled to charm Canadians during the campaign as he pledged to roll back Liberal environmental policies, while fending off attacks over his opposition to same-sex marriage in a 2005 speech.
In these debates the rookie leader, who is less comfortable speaking in French than English, has to show Canadians that he’s ready to be prime minister.
“My message to all Quebecers is that the Conservative Party is the only one that can replace Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party,” Scheer told a news conference on Tuesday.