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Canadians Vote in Tight Election as Trudeau Hopes to Cling to Power

Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaks to his supporters during a "Team Trudeau 2019" Rally at the Woodward’s Atrium in Vancouver, British Columbia, Oct. 20, 2019.

Canadians began voting in a general election Monday, with surveys predicting a minority government as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party risks losing its majority or even being kicked out of office.

The Liberals and the Conservatives, led by Andrew Scheer, could be set for a near dead heat with pundits calling it one Canada's closest elections ever.

Polls opened at 1100 GMT in the provinces of Labrador and Newfoundland, in eastern Canada, the first of the country's six time zones. Polls will remain open in far western British Columbia until 0200 GMT Tuesday, although the first results are expected starting at 2300 GMT.

Some 27.4 million Canadians are eligible to elect 338 members of parliament after a tense and sometimes bitter election campaign.

Campaigning ended as it began some 40 days earlier, with polls showing a near perfect equilibrium.

Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives -- the parties that have led Canada since Confederation in 1867 -- is forecast to win enough support to secure an absolute majority of seats in parliament.

Faded golden boy

At final campaign stops in westernmost British Columbia on Sunday, former golden boy Trudeau made an emotional appeal to voters to enable him to build on the achievements of his first term.

He warned against Scheer's pledged rollback of environmental protections including a federal carbon tax that discourages the use of large amounts of fossil fuels.

"We need a strong, progressive government that will unite Canadians and fight climate change -- not a progressive opposition," Trudeau told a rally in a suburb of Vancouver after whistle-stops in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta.

"We need to unite as citizens. We need to unite as a planet."

After winning in a 2015 landslide -- in a repeat of the wave of support that in 1968 carried his late father Pierre to power -- Trudeau's star has dimmed while in office.

His image has been tainted by ethics lapses in the handling of the bribery prosecution of an engineering giant, while his campaign was rocked by the emergence of old photographs of him in blackface make-up.

Surging social democrats and resuscitated Quebec separatists have also chipped away at Liberal support.

Main parties both struggle

If Trudeau hangs on, it will be because Scheer has struggled to win over Canadians with his bland minivan-driving dad persona and a throwback to the thrifty policies of past Tory administrations.

Andrew Scheer, Leader of The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and his wife Jill, with two of their children, wave to the crowd at a rally in Richmond, British Columbia, Oct. 20, 2019.
Andrew Scheer, Leader of The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and his wife Jill, with two of their children, wave to the crowd at a rally in Richmond, British Columbia, Oct. 20, 2019.

Canadians "cannot afford" a Liberal government propped up by the third-place New Democratic Party (NDP), Scheer said at the end of a marathon last push from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans.

"We can only imagine what the NDP's price would be to keep Justin Trudeau in power," he said.

"Whatever it is, we know Trudeau would pay any price to stay in power and he'd use your money to do it."

Campaign attack ads have included false accusations that Liberals would legalize hard drugs and the Tories would allow the proliferation of assault weapons.

At one rally, Trudeau was forced to wear a bulletproof vest.

Along the bruising way, Trudeau and Scheer traded barbs.

Trudeau evoked the bogeymen of past and current Tory parties fostering "politics of fear and division" and Scheer called the prime minister a "compulsive liar," "a phoney and a fraud."

Trudeau defends record

Trudeau defended his record: a strong economy and low unemployment, legal cannabis, the resettlement of 60,000 Syrian refugees, doctor-assisted deaths, a public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, and free trade deals with Europe, Pacific nations and North American neighbors.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama endorsed Trudeau, 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.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have stood alone among all of the parties in pledging austerity measures to return to a balanced budget within five years.

Scheer was shaken late in the campaign over revelations of his US dual citizenship and allegations that his party hired a communications firm to "destroy" the upstart People's Party, led by former Conservative foreign minister Maxime Bernier.

The party has situated itself to the right of the Conservatives and could draw votes away.

On the left, the Bloc has come back from a ruinous 2015 election result, tapping into lingering Quebec nationalism to challenge the Liberals' dominance in the province.

The Bloc and NDP have said they would not prop up the Tories if they secure a minority.

Who will govern may still be unclear for weeks after the polls close during alliance negotiations that could keep Trudeau in office even if his party loses.