OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s official opposition Conservatives on Saturday chose a little-known, 38-year-old leader to fight a 2019 election against Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau but only after a fierce contest that revealed internal divisions.
On the 13th and final round of balloting, many more than political observers predicted, former House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer edged out ex-foreign minister and favorite Maxime Bernier by 51 percent to 49 percent.
Scheer is younger and much less well-known than the 45-year-old Trudeau, an avowed feminist who took power in November 2015 promising a more inclusive kind of politics. Polls show the Liberals are still well ahead of opposition parties.
Scheer must now try to heal a rift between the socially conservative wing he represents and others who prefer a more centrist approach.
“We all know what it looks like when conservatives are divided. We will not let that happen again,” Scheer told a televised news conference after the final results were announced in a Toronto convention center.
“Imagine what we will do when we are all working together. We can’t go through another four years of Justin Trudeau.”
The race had moments of Trump-like populism with a reality TV star and a candidate critical of immigration getting early attention. But Scheer and Bernier were more mainstream politicians, suggesting the wave of populism that swept Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency will not extend to Canada.
The right-of-center Conservatives held power for nearly a decade under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper before the center-left Liberals won in 2015.
Scheer, who like Harper is based in western Canada, attacked Trudeau for running up large budget deficits and accused him of being soft on what he called “radical Islamic terrorism”.
Although Scheer says he will not reopen contentious debates on issues like abortion, which is legal in Canada, the Liberals quickly accused him of harboring an extreme and divisive agenda.
“The challenge will be to attack Justin Trudeau’s weaknesses, but also to bring Conservatives who have left the party back into the fold,” said Queen’s University political science professor Jonathan Rose.
The race was determined by calculating support from delegates and Conservative associations in all of Canada’s 338 parliamentary constituencies.
Results showed Scheer polled better than expected in Quebec, the predominantly French-speaking province which holds 78 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons and is vital to any party’s prospects.
None of the challengers has the high profile of Trudeau, whose approval ratings remain higher than any opponent on the left or right, despite rising dissatisfaction with the economy and a series of spending and entitlement controversies.
According to a Nanos Research poll, Trudeau is the preferred choice as prime minister for 46 percent of Canadians.
“For Conservatives, it is really all about the economy,” said Darrell Bricker, pollster with Ipsos Public Affairs. “If the Conservative Party doesn’t have a strong lead over the Liberals on the question of which party has the best economic plan, it will struggle.”
Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by James Dalgleish and Mary Milliken