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Analysis-Shift to the right may cost Canada’s Conservatives amid anti-vaccine protests

FILE PHOTO: Protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Ottawa
FILE PHOTO: Truckers and supporters attend a demonstration near Parliament Hill as they continue to protest against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine mandates, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada January 31, 2022. REUTERS/Blair Gable/File Photo

February 2, 2022

By Steve Scherer

OTTAWA (Reuters) – A dayslong protest in Canada’s capital is unlikely to succeed in its objective of repealing vaccine mandates, but could pull an already troubled Conservative opposition even further to the right, eroding its chances of winning power.

The Conservatives, who lost their third consecutive election to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals last year, are torn between leaning towards populism or moderating policies to attract the centrist voters who will decide the next election, which could occur within two years.

The split in opinion may also cost Conservative leader Erin O’Toole his job https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/main-rival-canadas-trudeau-will-resist-efforts-oust-him-2022-02-01. His reluctance to quickly embrace the protest “galvanized” those who wanted O’Toole to go, said a former senior Conservative official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. That sentiment precipitates a move to oust O’Toole in a caucus vote as early as Wednesday.

A shift to the right is a problem for the Conservatives because of the middle-of-the-road character of most Canadian voters, on the right and left, said Darrell Bricker, CEO of pollster Ipsos Public Affairs.

    “There is no national government lead by a hard-right option. It’s basic math,” he said.

The protest continued to cause gridlock in downtown Ottawa as demonstrators seek to overturn COVID-19 vaccine mandates championed by Trudeau, including one for cross-border truckers https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/canadas-trudeau-slams-fear-mongering-over-covid-vaccine-mandate-truckers-2022-01-24.

About 79% of Canadians have had two COVID-19 vaccine shots and many of the pandemic measures, including mask or vaccination requirements, had been largely accepted as common-sense public health measures by politicians across the political spectrum.

But opposition to pandemic restrictions is growing increasingly political, with some – like the protesters in Ottawa – adopting the more polarized views espoused south of the border by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

“The pulling towards a more Trumpian ideology, or more Trump-esque political discourse, is something that we’ve seen in Canada,” said Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute polling company.

Trump praised the protest where hateful symbols often seen at his rallies, like Confederate flags or swastikas, have been spotted among the crowd, prompting many Canadians to express their outrage on social media.

‘PAINTED INTO A CORNER’

On Monday, O’Toole warned that if the party swerves too far to the right, it would be “angry, negative, and extreme.”

The latest Omicron wave has started to turn opinion against lockdowns, and that is especially true for Conservative voters.

About 54% of Canadians say it is time to end restrictions, an Angus Reid poll showed this week, up from 39% since the first part of January. Of that, 81% of past Conservative voters agree it is time to end restrictions, compared with 34% of Liberal voters.

Trudeau would be the obvious winner if serious turmoil riles the Conservatives, especially if – as some predict – the party splits in two. The Liberal leader, who first took power in 2015, this week bashed “those who fly racist flags” and defended vaccination as a tool that can help end the pandemic.

The current Conservative party was formed by the 2003 merger of populist Reform Party and the centrist Progressive Conservative party, which would go on to win three consecutive elections between 2006 to 2011.

The party has struggled to raise money since last year’s September election, garnering C$3.1 million ($2.44 million) in the fourth quarter of last year, less than half that generated in the same quarter of 2020 and less than the Liberals, according to official data.

“The Conservatives are painted into a corner,” Kurl said, because they alienate their centrist supporters by backing the protest, and their right-leaning supporters if they do not.

($1 = 1.2694 Canadian dollars)

(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Amran Abocar and Aurora Ellis)

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