OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to call an election two years ahead of schedule has not worked out as planned.
Polls have consistently tracked a decline in voter support for his Liberal Party and a rise in backing for its nearest rivals, the Conservatives, leaving the parties in a statistical tie.
The bulk of the 36-day campaign, the shortest allowed by law, came during Canada’s all-too-brief summer, when many voters’ minds were far from politics. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, where the Canadian military fought, further distracted the public’s attention.
So for Mr. Trudeau and his rivals, particularly Erin O’Toole of the Conservatives, the debates this week in each of Canada’s official languages were crucial opportunities to define the campaign before Election Day, Sept. 20.
Mr. Trudeau faced off not only against Mr. O’Toole, who is leading his party in an election for the first time, but also against Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-of-center New Democratic Party; Annamie Paul, who heads the Green Party; and Yves-François Blanchet of the Bloc Québécois, a regional party that endorses Quebec’s independence. With the five leaders receiving equal time, it was difficult for any to break through with a detailed message.
The French-language debate on Wednesday often focused on issues of interest to Quebec. With English being the language of three-quarters of Canadians, the debate on Thursday in that language was considered the more important of the two.
Trudeau struggled to justify his pandemic election.
In both debates, Mr. Trudeau’s rivals relentlessly challenged him for calling what they viewed as an unnecessary election in the middle of the pandemic. The subject came up 13 times during the French-language debate.
In 2019, the Liberals under Mr. Trudeau failed to secure a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. That forced him to rely on votes from opposition parties, usually the New Democrats, to pass legislation and allowed the opposition parties to pool their votes in committees to tackle subjects embarrassing to the government.
Mr. Trudeau said he needed a new mandate with a majority in order to put pandemic recovery measures in place swiftly. His opponents, however, repeatedly pointed out that none of Mr. Trudeau’s major objectives had been blocked during the past two years — although some important bills had been delayed and then died with the call for an election.
In the Thursday debate, Mr. O’Toole challenged Mr. Trudeau’s decision to call for the election just as efforts to repatriate Canadians in Afghanistan and to aid Afghans who had worked for the Canadian military were in a critical phase.
“You put your own political interests ahead of the well-being of thousands of people,” Mr. O’Toole said. “Mr. Trudeau, you should not have called this election; you should have gotten the job done in Afghanistan.”
A complex format and a crowded stage limited debate.
The two-hour debate had a complex structure. The moderator, Shachi Kurl, the president of the Angus Reid Institute, a nonprofit polling organization, asked questions written by a committee, with questions also posed via video by members of the public and at the site by journalists.
Ms. Kurl assiduously enforced rules that prevented the candidates onstage from speaking out of turn or responding to questions not addressed to them. There were no closing statements.
Duane Bratt, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, said that the formula worked against Mr. Trudeau, who was constantly targeted by the four other leaders, and that it aided Mr. O’Toole.
“O’Toole could talk about his climate plan in 30 seconds and then just move on to another subject, which is, I think, what he wanted,” Professor Bratt said. “The formula didn’t allow Trudeau time to really dig into some of O’Toole’s weaknesses.”
But voters, Professor Bratt added, were the debate’s clear losers.
“If this was the first time that you’re paying attention to the election, you were not well served tonight,” he said.
Climate change and Indigenous issues got their due.
Climate change, in particular, stood out as an issue, although no leader made a compelling case that his or her party offered the best approach, said Cara Camcastle, who lectures on political science at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.
“It’s good to see that all the leaders think it’s an important issue,” she said. “But none of them have the solutions of our own.”
Mr. Trudeau was repeatedly attacked, particularly by Mr. Singh, for the rise in carbon emissions in Canada during each of the six years the prime minister has held office. Mr. Trudeau responded that his government’s climate measures, including the introduction of a national carbon price, had put Canada on a path to not just meeting but also exceeding its emissions commitment under the Paris Accord, which has a target date of 2030.
Partly because of the organizer’s themed approach to the debate, reconciliation with Indigenous people received an unusual amount of attention.
While all the other leaders picked apart Mr. Trudeau’s record — he has made Indigenous issues a top priority — they all agreed with his position that the process of replacing the 19th- century laws governing Indigenous people must be led by their communities rather than by the government.
Guns and child care were largely absent in the English debate.
Mr. O’Toole’s plan to scrap a Trudeau program under which several provinces provide child care for 10 Canadian dollars a day or less with a tax credit was prominent in the French debate but was largely bypassed on Thursday.
Similarly, Mr. O’Toole’s backtracking on an earlier promise to eliminate Mr. Trudeau’s ban on 1,500 types of assault-style semiautomatic rifles received limited attention.
The verdict: ‘A meaningless waste of time’?
Professor Bratt and Dr. Camcastle said they believed that the two debates would not give form to what had been a largely shapeless campaign that lacked a clear issue — aside from Mr. Trudeau’s decision to call it.
Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates, a polling firm in Ottawa, offered a blunt assessment on Twitter.
“Let me spare you the speculation of who won, lost, what impact,” he wrote. “It was a meaningless waste of time. Possibly the most vacuous and tedious debate in Canadian political history.”
Vjosa Isai contributed research.