In the dying days of what Justin Trudeau described as one of the "nastiest" election campaigns in Canadian history -- with plenty of mudslinging, attack ads and misinformation -- he played up fears on Thursday of vote-splitting handing victory to his rival Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives.
Policy announcements gave way to calls to vote strategically to keep Trudeau's Liberals in power and prevent a rollback of his progressive policies by the Tories.
Pollsters predict a minority government -- either Liberal or Conservative -- resulting from the October 21 ballot.
Attack ads accused Liberals of seeking to legalize hard drugs and the Tories of allowing assault rifles on Canadian streets -- claims that are flat out wrong or exaggerated, respectively.
And jabs multiplied.
"It is very possible that Canadians will wake up on the 22nd (of October) with a Conservative government that has made eliminating the only real plan that Canada has ever had to fight climate change its top priority, and which will cut spending and bring back austerity measures," Trudeau warned during a whistle-stop in Trois Riviere, Quebec.
Trudeau, hurt by a blackface makeup scandal revealed mid-campaign and lingering negative sentiments over his firing of Canada's first indigenous attorney general, lost ground in the home stretch to a surging New Democratic Party (NDP), whose leader Jagmeet Singh impressed Canadians with his strong debate performances.
The reanimated separatist Bloc Quebecois, which had been declared dead -- along with Quebec's independence movement -- two elections ago when it was reduced to a mere handful of seats in parliament, has also eaten into the Liberals' onetime lead.
Trudeau and Scheer, whose own lackluster campaign cost his Conservatives too, are now neck and neck, each with 31-32 percent support.
If these numbers hold up, neither party which alternately ruled Canada since Confederation in 1867 will win a majority mandate.
Whichever wins the most seats in parliament out of 338 up for grabs would have to ally with one or more smaller parties to prop up its minority government.
- 'Coalition' not a dirty word -
"The choice in this election is very clear: a Trudeau-NDP coalition that will work in concert to raise the carbon tax, adding thousands of dollars to your bills, or a Conservative majority government that will eliminate the carbon tax," said Scheer.
"We're asking Canadians for a strong Conservative majority mandate."
Trudeau urged voters notably in the key battleground of Quebec to elect a progressive government, not a "progressive opposition."
Taking aim at Scheer, he called out the Conservatives this week for running "one of the dirtiest, nastiest campaigns based on disinformation that we've ever seen in this country."
He also warned that electing a Conservative government hellbent on scrapping environmental protections enacted by the Liberals would be "truly unfortunate" for the global climate fight.
On Wednesday, Trudeau got a boost from former US president Barack Obama who urged Canadian voters to back Trudeau for a second term, calling him an "effective leader who takes on big issues like climate change."
"The world needs his progressive leadership now," Obama said in a tweet.
Yves-Francois Blanchet, leader of the Bloc, which is only fielding candidates in Quebec but is nipping at the Liberals' heels in the province, has said he would not support the Tories' scrapping of the carbon tax, making any alliance with Scheer unlikely.
Singh too has ruled out supporting a Conservative minority government, saying: "We're going to always fight Conservatives because we don't believe in their cuts to services."
Hitting back at Tory fear-mongering over a possible Liberal-NDP tie up, he said in response to a reporter's question that "coalition" is not a dirty word.
He dismissed Trudeau's calls to vote strategically, urging Canadians: "Do not vote out of fear."
© 2019 AFP