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    Canada Conservatives make Pierre Poilievre leader against Trudeau

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

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

    The Calgary, Alberta-born lawmaker has drawn standing-room-only crowds — mostly unusual for leadership campaigns here — trafficking in grievance politics, pledging to fire the central bank governor, railing against public health mandates, promising to appoint a “free speech guardian” on university campuses and vowing to make Canada the “freest country in the world.”

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

    His campaign said it had signed up more members than the entire Conservative Party in the previous two leadership races, making a play for disaffected voters who had never attended a political rally before. In this year’s second quarter, he raised more money from donors than his leadership opponents combined. He earned an endorsement from Stephen Harper, Canada’s last Conservative prime minister.

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

    Patrick Brown, the mayor of the Toronto suburb of Brampton, Ontario, was disqualified in July amid allegations that he violated federal elections law on selling party memberships, among other complaints. (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 ballot, was restricted to dues-paying members of the Conservative Party. A record 678,000 were eligible to vote in this year’s contest 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 during the last Conservative Party leadership contest, in 2020. They chose Erin O’Toole, a lawyer and military veteran, to helm the party. But the enthusiasm for the leadership race didn’t translate into success against Trudeau and his Liberal Party.

    As he campaigned to become party leader, O’Toole pitched himself as a “true blue” Conservative, who was not a “product of the Ottawa bubble.” He pledged to “take back Canada” and to defend Canada’s history from “cancel culture and the radical left.” He disparaged his chief opponent as “Liberal lite.”

    But during the federal election last year, O’Toole dropped the “take back Canada” talk and tacked to the center. Critics charged that he was a shape-shifter who would say anything to get elected. Many Conservatives detested O’Toole’s moderate platform and reversals on key policy positions.

    He won the popular vote, but not a plurality of 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 has certainly been discouraging,” said Jonathan Malloy, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa. “All the races are going to get scrappy, but particularly early in the race, the attacks were so negative. … The personal attacks have really been basically whether someone is legitimately part of the party” and a reflection of the divisions between its factions.

    During the campaign, Poilievre chided Charest for being what he described as a closet Liberal.

    Charest called Poilievre “unfit” to govern, attacking him for embracing the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” that clogged Ottawa and blockaded border crossings this year to protest public health measures, flirting with conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum and pitching cryptocurrencies as a way to “opt out” of inflation.

    “Will the Conservative Party of Canada really go down the road taken by American parties?” Charest asked at a French-language debate in May. “A divisive approach based on slogans … or will we do politics in Canada for Canadians? That’s the choice I’m offering you. I’m not a pseudo-American here.”

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

    Right-wing populism is not new to Canada; it has a long history in the prairies. But it has been a “tougher sell” at the federal level, at which voters typically have elected 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’s railing against “gatekeepers” and the political establishment, politics has effectively been his only career.

    As a university student, he was a finalist in a “As Prime Minister, I Would …” essay contest, arguing for a two-term limit for federal lawmakers, among other pledges. He’s now in his seventh term, after first winning election in 2004 to represent an electoral district in the Ottawa suburbs.

    Over the years, Poilievre earned a reputation for fierce partisanship, with a knack for getting under his opponents’ skin. Some criticized what they saw as a smarmy, take-no-prisoners, internet troll approach.

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

    The style has on occasion landed him in hot water.

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

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

    He became the federal democratic reform minister in 2013. In that role, he oversaw changes to Canada’s elections laws that critics said would disenfranchise voters and curtail the independence of the chief electoral officer. Trudeau has since done away with many of the changes.

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

    He takes over amid high inflation, surging interest rates and concerns about the affordability of housing and groceries. By the next federal election, which is not expected until 2025, Trudeau’s Liberals will have been in power for a decade and voters could be fatigued and open to a change.

    The Liberal Party said in a statement on Saturday that Poilievre “is proposing dangerous ideas that would risk our economy, our health and our safety.”

    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 draw support from young voters and those in the suburbs outside Toronto and Vancouver that are federal election battlegrounds.

    They said his more recent focus on bread-and-butter issues — in one campaign video, he’s seated at a diner, reciting for an invisible Trudeau how much the prices of the bacon, coffee, and, yes, bread and butter, have risen — could be a winner with voters. But they noted that his diagnoses of the roots of economic concerns such as inflation and prescriptions for addressing them have drawn criticism from economists.

    Béland said Poilievre’s “rhetoric is really strong, and it’s something that could scare away some moderate voters,” but that he “shouldn’t be underestimated.”



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