Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose electoral fortunes are recovering after images appeared of him in blackface, will take part in a debate on Monday that could help him retain power in an October 21 vote.
Liberals leader Trudeau, who has apologised repeatedly for the photos, will appear in a live two-hour debate in English with the heads of the other five parties, most notably Andrew Scheer from the official opposition Conservatives.
English is spoken by two-thirds of Canada’s 38 million population and the session has traditionally been regarded as crucial. The leaders will also face off in French, Canada‘s other official language, on Thursday.
“The official debates are going to be the big enchilada, perhaps more so than for any national debates in our history,” said Frank Graves, president of polling firm Ekos. The debate starts at 7pm Eastern Time (23:00 GMT).
A Nanos Research poll for CTV and the Globe and Mail on Monday put the Liberals at 34.3 percent and the Conservatives at 33.4 percent, in contrast to surveys that showed Trudeau falling behind after the blackface scandal broke on September 18.
Trudeau has gained momentum since Scheer stumbled through a French-language debate on private channel TVA on Wednesday. French is the main language in the populous province of Quebec, which accounts for 78 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons.
Scheer is also facing questions about why he did not reveal he has dual US citizenship.
A Liberal official said Trudeau expected to be the main target during the debates.
“We’re 100 percent focused on Trudeau,” a Conservative strategist told Reuters News Agency.
Scheer on Monday said he would focus on presenting to Canadians “our positive plan for how they will get ahead under a Conservative government and holding up Justin Trudeau’s record of failure”.
Scheer, however, may have a challenge landing serious blows, given there will be six leaders on stage – the most in Canadian political history.
Also on stage will be the New Democratic Party’s Jagmeet Singh, the People’s Party of Canada’s Maxime Bernier, the Bloc Quebecois’s Yves-Francois Blanchet and the Green Party’s Elizabeth May.
Ellie Alboim, who has helped four Liberal leaders prepare for debates, said the event would be a referendum on Trudeau.
“If the blackface incidents have indeed turned this into an election about character, voters who are still undecided will want to see how the prime minister fares,” said Alboim, who works for government relations firm Earnscliffe.
On Monday, Trudeau took aim at his rival, foreshadowing what is likely to be his theme in the debate, saying a Conservative government “always cuts services, looks for austerity, and gives tax breaks to the wealthiest instead of to everyone.”