OTTAWA: Canadian elections headed for a photo finish Monday with liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau, who is seeking a third term, threatened by a strong challenge from rookie conservative leader Erin O'Toole.
Trudeau called the snap election hoping to parlay a smooth Covid-19 vaccine rollout -- among the best in the world -- into a new mandate to steer the nation's pandemic exit, without having to rely on opposition party support to pass his agenda.
But the contest, after a bumpy five weeks of campaigning, appears set for a repeat of the close 2019 general election that resulted in the one-time golden boy of Canadian politics clinging to power, yet losing his majority in parliament.
A sudden surge in Covid-19 cases led by the Delta variant late in the campaign, after the lifting of most public health measures this summer, has also thrown a wrench into the works.
At 49, Trudeau has faced tougher bouts and come out unscathed.
But after six years in power, his administration is showing signs of fatigue, and it's been an uphill battle for him to convince Canadians to stick with his Liberals after falling short of high expectations set in his 2015 landslide win.
"The main ballot box question at the start of this campaign was whether the Liberals deserved to have a majority government," said Daniel Beland, a politics professor at McGill University in Montreal.
"But now the question is whether they deserve to stay in power."
Going into the final stretch, the two main political parties that ruled Canada since its 1867 confederation were neck and neck with about 31 percent of voting intentions each and four smaller factions nipping at their heels.
Voting across Canada's six time zones was scheduled to start in the Atlantic island province of Newfoundland at 8:30 am (1100 GMT) and wrap up in westernmost British Columbia at 7 pm (0200 GMT).
An estimated 27 million Canadians are eligible to cast a ballot to select 338 members of Parliament. To keep his job, Trudeau's Liberals must win a plurality of seats and take at least 170 for a majority.
Due to the pandemic, a significant number of mail-in ballots (1.2 million) are expected, which could mean the results of the election may not be known Monday evening.
Pollster and former political strategist Tim Powers advised not counting Trudeau out.
"I still think Justin Trudeau will win a minority government," he told AFP.
"But is that a win for him?" he added, suggesting Trudeau may be turfed as leader if the Liberals fare poorly at the ballot box.
'Anti-vaxxer mobs' and China 'counterstrikes'
The 36-day campaign -- the shortest allowed under Canadian law -- saw the contenders spar over climate actions, indigenous reconciliation, affordable housing, the recent Afghanistan crisis, mandatory Covid-19 inoculations and vaccine passports.
Rivals criticized Trudeau over the timing of the election during a pandemic.
Meanwhile, the 48-year-old O'Toole was knocked for his backing of Alberta and two other Tory-led provinces' loosening of public health restrictions too soon, with Covid-19 outbreaks now forcing their overwhelmed hospitals to fly patients across Canada for care.
At rallies, Trudeau was dogged by what he described as "anti-vaxxer mobs," including one that threw stones at him.
He also received endorsements from former US president Barack Obama and his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
O'Toole, meanwhile, fumbled over gun control and was warned by Beijing, according to Chinese state media, that his proposed hardline on China -- Canada's second-largest trading partner, with whom relations have soured over its detention of two Canadian nationals -- would "invite counterstrikes."
Overall, commented Max Cameron, a professor at the University of British Columbia, "this hasn't been a polarizing election. There's actually a lot of clustering around the middle."
"This isn't Republicans versus Democrats south of the border," he said, referring to the United States.
"This has been very much a Canadian campaign in which there's a strong consensus around what are the issues and how they have to be tackled."
O'Toole, a relative unknown who became Tory leader only last year, tracked his party to the political center, forcing the Liberals to compete for votes on the left with the New Democrats and Greens, as well as the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
The Conservatives, however, also saw their support clawed in the final week by former foreign minister Maxime Bernier's far right People's Party.
When the final count is in, said University of Winnipeg professor Felix Mathieu, "it's unlikely anyone will have obtained a majority."