How Trudeau won over Canada

Story highlights

  • Andrew Cohen: Real story of Conservative government rout in Canada is victorious, underestimated campaign of Justin Trudeau
  • He says Trudeau spells return of Liberal Canada-- more moderate, tolerant--spending on green energy, roads, bridges, urban transit

Andrew Cohen is a best-selling author and journalist who writes a nationally syndicated column for The Ottawa Citizen. His latest book, is "Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Made History" (Signal/Random House). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Ottawa, Canada (CNN)The story of the general election in Canada that catapulted the Liberal Party back into power after its near-death decade in exile is the unlikely story of Justin Trudeau, Canada's Prime Minister-elect.

Andrew Cohen
The charismatic son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the iconic leader of Canada from 1968 to 1984, Justin Trudeau spent his first 12 years at 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of the Prime Minister. He taught mathematics and English before entering politics and was elected to parliament from Montreal in 2008. Like his father, he skis, boxes and canoes.
Now 43, the same age John F. Kennedy became president, he is Canada's second-youngest prime minister. His astounding success follows the longest national campaign since 1872 in which Canadians routed the ruling Conservatives, ending a divisive decade in power while embracing a Liberal Party which was thought to be in free fall.
    For the Conservatives, led by the dour Stephen Harper, it is a stunning rebuke. For the Liberals, led by the sunny Trudeau, it is a stunning reversal. And for Canada, it is a return to a familiar past in politics and personality, after 10 years of a modestly right-of-center government in a modestly left-of-center country.
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    It was anything but a sure thing. At the beginning of the campaign, Trudeau's popularity was falling. The Conservatives had launched a multimillion-dollar negative advertising campaign that claimed he was "just not ready."
    The point was to portray the youthful Trudeau, who once had an unruly haircut, as an amateur, callow and hollow. While former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney warned his fellow Conservatives not to underestimate him, a senior Conservative said expectations were so low of Trudeau that he would only have to arrive at the first of the leaders' debates "with his pants on."
    Trudeau not only showed up fully clothed, he excelled in all the debates over the 78-day campaign. Turning the negative ads to his advantage, Trudeau declared in television commercials of his own that he was "not ready" for another four years of the Conservatives.
    Nor were Canadians. In defeating the government, they made another Trudeau prime minister, renewing a succession as dynastic as a Bush or Clinton ascending to the presidency. They also returned political power in Canada to an exclusive two-party affair between the Liberals and Conservatives.
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    Canadians rejected a campaign of Conservative fear-mongering, which suggested that Syrian refugees were terrorists, that the wearing of the Niqab by Muslim women was a threat to Canadian values, and that the economy would fall into recession under the Liberals.
    Canadians ignored that. Instead, decisively and enthusiastically, they returned to a Liberal Canada that promises to be more moderate, confident, tolerant and ambitious.
    Although polls had shown the Liberals pulling ahead in the last week, few predicted the scale of their victory. It was crushing. They won every seat in the four provinces of Atlantic Canada, more than half the seats in French-speaking Quebec and more than two-thirds of the seats in diverse, industrial Ontario. They won all the northern seats, as well as many in Western Canada, where the Liberals are traditionally weak.
    In Calgary, the heart of conservative, oil-rich Alberta, they won their first seats since 1968. In British Columbia, on the West Coast, the party won its most seats in 40 years.
    In Canada's new Parliament of 338 seats, the Liberals will have 184 seats, the Conservatives 99, the New Democratic Party 44. The rest are divided among the Green Party and the secessionist Bloc Québécois.
    It means the Liberals can govern for four years with a free hand to implement a big agenda on climate change, a commitment to multilateralism and liberal internationalism, tax breaks for the middle class, and a major public works program.
    As much as the size of the majority, though, is what it represents. In an October moment, Canada has rejected a government led by Harper, a secretive former economist who had united the country's conservative movement and won three elections since 2006. This time, however, history was against him. No leader has ever won four consecutive elections.
    Polls said some 70% of Canadians wanted change. But that meant choosing between the New Democrats, a social democratic party that has never held power in Ottawa, and the Liberals, who have governed for most of Canada's history but suffered their worst defeat in the last election in 2011. As the New Democrats surged early in the campaign, pundits wondered whether the Liberals would survive, should they place third again.
    But the Liberals outflanked the New Democrats on the left, promising three years of deficit spending on green energy, roads and bridges, and urban transit, while the NDP cautiously promised to balance the budget like the fiscally hawkish Conservatives they had hoped to displace.
    Looking for an agent of change, progressive voters chose the Liberals, not the New Democrats. That party had hoped to realign national politics, which has always chosen between Liberals and Conservatives, both of them traditionally centrist.
    Now the New Democrats are in third place, the Conservatives in second, the Liberals in power, led by a man named Trudeau. In Canada, it is back to the future.