Canadian Conservatives Make Pierre Poilievre Leader Against Trudeau

TORONTO — Canada’s recently hapless conservatives, losers of three consecutive federal elections that exposed divisions between their populist and more moderate factions, on Saturday chose Pierre Poilievre, a scorched-earth-style populist agitator with savvy social media, as their new leader to take on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Poilievre, 43, won a resounding victory, taking 68 percent of the vote on the first ballot, signaling a right-wing, populist shift for the country’s main opposition party.

The Calgary, Alberta-born legislator has drawn crowds standing only — usually unusual for leadership campaigns here — dealing in grievance politics, vowing to fire the central bank governor, railing against public health mandates, promising to appoint a “guardian for free speech” on college campuses, and vowing to back Canada making it the ‘freest country in the world’.

“Tonight begins the journey to replace an old government that costs you more and delivers less with a new government that puts you first – your salary, your pension, your home, your country,” Poilievre said to applause and chants of “freedom” in a victory speech at an Ottawa convention center.

His campaign said it had signed up more members than the entire Conservative party in the previous two leadership races, put on a play for disgruntled voters who had never attended a political rally before. In the second quarter of this year, he raised more money from donors than his leading opponents combined. He was endorsed by Stephen Harper, Canada’s last Conservative Prime Minister.

Poilievre’s main opponent was former Quebec Prime Minister Jean Charest, 64, a former leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party. A skilled politician, he presented himself as more moderate than Poilievre, able to expand the party’s big blue tent while keeping the various factions united.

Patrick Brown, the mayor of the Toronto suburb of Brampton, Ontario, was disqualified in July over allegations that he had, among other things, violated federal election law over selling party memberships. (Brown denied wrongdoing; he accused the party, without evidence, of working to ensure Poilievre was elected.)

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The vote, which used a ranked vote, was limited to dues-paying members of the Conservative Party. A record 678,000 eligible voters were eligible to vote this year, and nearly 418,000 ballots were accepted — the most for the election of a federal party leader in Canada’s history.

A record number of members were also signed up at the Conservative Party’s last leadership contest, in 2020. They chose Erin O’Toole, a lawyer and military veteran, to lead the party. But the enthusiasm for the leadership race did not translate into success against Trudeau and his Liberal party.

While campaigning to become party leader, O’Toole presented himself as a “true blue” conservative, who was not a “product of the Ottawa bubble”. He vowed to “take back Canada” and defend Canada’s history from “cancel culture and the radical left”. He belittled his main opponent as ‘liberal lite’.

But in last year’s federal election, O’Toole dropped the “take back Canada” talk and went downtown. Critics claimed he was a shape-shifter who would say anything to get elected. Many conservatives disliked O’Toole’s moderate platform and reversals in key policy positions.

He won the popular vote, but not multiple seats in parliament. The caucus ousted him as leader in February.

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The race to replace him was marked by personal attacks between the candidates.

“The tone is definitely discouraging,” said Jonathan Malloy, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa. “All races will be messy, but especially at the beginning of the race the attacks were so negative. … The personal attacks were basically the question of whether someone is legitimately part of the party” and a reflection of the divisions between her factions.

During the campaign, Poilievre reprimanded Charest for being what he described as a liberal.

Charest called Poilievre “unfit” to rule and attacked him for embracing the self-proclaimed “Freedom Convoy” that clogged Ottawa and blocked border crossings this year to protest public health measures, flirting with conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum and tossing cryptocurrencies like a way to opt out of inflation.

“Will the Conservative Party of Canada really go down the road that American parties are taking?” asked Charest during a French-language debate in May. “A slogan-based divisive approach…or will we be doing politics for Canadians in Canada? That is the choice I offer you. I am not a pseudo-American here.”

On Saturday, Poilievre thanked Charest for his “service to our country and making sure we still have a country that is united,” a reference to his efforts to avert separatism in Quebec in the 1990s.

Right-wing populism is not new to Canada; it has a long history in the prairies. But it’s been a “tougher sell” at the federal level, with voters typically electing more moderate governments, said Daniel Béland, the director of the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in Montreal.

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For all Poilievre railings against “gatekeepers” and the political establishment, politics has in fact been his only career.

As a college student, he was a finalist in an essay competition “As Prime Minister, I Would…” in which he argued for a two-term limit for federal lawmakers, among other commitments. He is now in his seventh term, having won the 2004 election for the first time to represent a constituency in suburban Ottawa.

Over the years, Poilievre acquired a reputation for fierce partisanship, with a knack for getting into the shoes of his opponents. Some criticized what they saw as a grubby, non-prisoner, internet troll approach.

The Canadian Press described Poilievre in 2013 as sort of Pete Campbell from the television drama “Mad Men”: the “character everyone loves to hate: young, conservative, ambitious and fabulously snotty.”

The style has occasionally landed him in hot water.

Once he apologized for making an unparliamentary gesture in Parliament. That came not long after he was caught using unparliamentary language on the microphone.

In 2008, on the day Harper apologized as Prime Minister for the government’s role in the residential school system separating Indigenous children from their families, he questioned whether there was “value for all this money” that Ottawa paid to the survivors. . He later apologized.

In 2013, he became the federal minister for democratic reforms. In that role, he oversaw changes to Canadian election laws that critics say would deprive voters and curtail the independence of the chief electoral officer. Trudeau has since scrapped many of the changes.

Poilievre did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

He takes amid high inflation, rising interest rates and concerns about the affordability of housing and groceries. In the next federal election, not expected until 2025, the Trudeau liberals will have been in power for a decade and voters may be weary and open to change.

The Liberal Party said in a statement on Saturday that Poilievre “proposes dangerous ideas that would endanger our economy, our health and our security”.

Analysts say the leader will need to focus on expanding the party’s appeal beyond its traditional base in rural Canada and the strongholds of Alberta and Saskatchewan to gain support from young voters and those in the suburbs outside of Toronto and Vancouver , where the federal election battlegrounds are.

They said his more recent focus on bread-and-butter issues — in a campaign video, he sits in a restaurant and recites to an unseen Trudeau how much the prices of the bacon, coffee, and, yes, bread and butter, have gone up — could be a winner with voters. But they noted that his diagnoses of the roots of economic problems such as inflation and recipes for tackling them have drawn criticism from economists.

Béland said Poilievre’s “rhetoric is very strong, and it is something that might put off some moderate voters” but that he “shouldn’t be underestimated”.

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