OTTAWA — Canadians have chosen another minority Liberal government — almost identical to the one it replaced — to finish the fight against COVID-19 and rebuild the shattered economy.
Precisely how stable a minority remains to be seen, as results were still trickling in and there were tight contests in dozens of ridings as the clock started running out on Monday night.
There are also almost 800,000 mail-in ballots to be counted, starting Tuesday, which could yet change the preliminary results in many of those tightly contested seats.
Late Monday, Justin Trudeau's Liberals were leading or elected in 157 seats — exactly the same number they won in 2019, 13 short of the 170 needed for a majority in the House of Commons.
Erin O'Toole's Conservatives were leading or elected in 121 seats, the same as in 2019 even though they won slightly more of the popular vote than the Liberals, as they did last time.
Jagmeet Singh's NDP were leading or elected in 29, a gain of five seats, while Yves-François Blanchet's Bloc Québécois was down three at 29.
The Greens, which elected three MPs in 2019, was down to two. Leader Annamie Paul, who had faced an internal insurrection last spring, was projected to come in fourth place in Toronto Centre in her third try to wrest that seat from the Liberals.
Maxime Bernier's People's Party, which ran on an anti-public health restrictions platform, didn't come close to winning a seat anywhere but pulled enough votes from the Conservatives to rob them of victory in a number of close races, particularly in Ontario.
The upshot raises questions about the judgment and strategy of both Trudeau and O'Toole.
Trudeau pulled the plug on his minority Liberal government on Aug. 15, a little less than two years after Canadians first reduced the Liberals to a minority.
He argued that Canada was at a pivotal moment in history and Canadians deserved a chance to decide how they wanted to finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back the shattered economy.
But the timing of his election call, coming as a fourth wave of the novel coronavirus was beginning to sweep the country, quickly sapped the goodwill Trudeau had built among Canadians for his government's handling of the pandemic over the previous 18 months.
And it gave rival leaders an opening to attack Trudeau's character, describing him as a selfish egoist who can't be trusted to put the interests of Canadians ahead of his personal ambition to secure a majority.
O'Toole won his party's leadership last year by courting social conservatives but then ditched his "true blue" image in a bid to broaden his party's appeal outside its Western Canada base. He presented himself to voters as a moderate with pricey centrist policies, including a plan to put a price on carbon, which his party had previously pilloried as a job-killing tax on everything.
But the move did not produce the hoped-for breakthrough for the Conservatives in Ontario or Quebec, where the Liberals once again won the lion's share of the seats.
They did make some modest gains in Atlantic Canada.
The NDP lost its lone Atlantic seat, St. John's East, to the Liberals. It had been held by New Democrat Jack Harris, who did not seek re-election.
Trudeau cabinet ministers Seamus O'Regan, Dominic LeBlanc and Lawrence MacAulay cruised to victory.
But Bernadette Jordan, who served as fisheries minister, lost to her Conservative rival in Nova Scotia's South Shore-St. Margarets, evidently hurt by the lobster fishery dispute between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers in the region.
In Fredericton, N.B., Jenica Atwin, the former Green MP who defected to the Liberals last spring, was in a tight, see-saw battle with the Conservatives.
Green support largely collapsed throughout the region.
There are almost one million mail-in ballots that election officials won't start counting until Tuesday. Elections Canada has said it expects to finish the mail-in count in most ridings by Wednesday, but some may take another day or two.
According to Elections Canada, almost 6.8 million people voted early, most of them at advance polls over a week ago, and the rest through special ballots cast by mail or at Elections Canada offices.
Canada has more than 30 million eligible voters.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2021.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press