On October 1st, 2017, Jagmeet Singh won the New Democratic Party leadership race in a landslide victory, completing the trio of major party leaders that will be running for Prime Minister in 2019. Singh is only the third person to win on the first ballot in NDP leadership race history, after Tommy Douglas, the founder of the party, and Jack Layton, the leader during the historic orange wave of 2011. Singh’s historic leadership win leaves many hopeful that he will continue to make history for the NDP in the anticipated 2019 federal election. Others say he faces a nearly insurmountable uphill battle. Media portrayals of Singh during his leadership campaign frequently revolved around two main pillars: his visible religiosity, and his relative ideological centrism. Each of these factors will likely continue to dominate conversations about Singh, and will impact his success dramatically. Both attributes have the potential to act either as a major roadblock or a major opportunity in his 2019 campaign.
While many have viewed Singh’s visible religiosity as an obstacle to his success in 2019, others see it as a unique catalyst to popularity as a politician.
On September 6th, 2017, just under a month before Singh won the leadership race, a protester disrupted his campaign event, accusing Singh of being “in bed with Sharia” and the Muslim Brotherhood. The protester’s misidentification (Singh is Sikh, not Muslim) and discriminatory words were not the only racially or religiously motivated attacks that Singh confronted throughout his leadership race. Since the rejection of religion in politics during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebec has had a particularly strong rhetoric of secularism as compared to the rest of the country. The province’s emphasis on secularism combined with the NDP’s reliance on Quebec for votes could prove detrimental for Singh, a candidate whose religious beliefs are a visible part of his identity. Pierre Nantel, a Member of Parliament in the NDP caucus, told Radio-Canada that Quebecers would not see themselves in Singh, echoing the sentiments from strategists and party insiders of the Bloc Quebecois that Singh’s visible religiosity will push Quebec voters away from the NDP. There is also speculation that this may cause some NDP MPs to cross the floor in order to become members of the Bloc Québécois. If this proves true, it will be particularly costly for Singh’s rise, considering the NDP’s reliance on a Quebec voter base on many issues like bilingualism and the environment. Unfortunately for Singh, this sentiment may not be exclusive to Quebec. The controversial Bill 62 passed by Quebec bans face coverings when receiving public services, which singles out Muslim women who wear the burqa or the niqab. If the bill is truly religiously motivated and not about security and communication as Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée claims, then the rhetoric attached to this bill may also impact Singh, since discrimination towards religious minorities might be further normalized. There has been loud dissent on the part of the PMO, provincial party Québec Solidaire and many universities against Bill 62 since its conception. Despite this, 76% of Quebecers support the bill, and 68% of Canadians at large say they would support a similar bill in their home provinces. Consequently, this may point to a growing nationwide religious intolerance that could hurt Singh in the 2019 election.
While many have viewed Singh’s visible religiosity as an obstacle to his success in 2019, others see it as a unique catalyst to popularity as a politician. When Singh was attacked by the protester in the aforementioned campaign rally in Brampton, a video of his response to the events quickly went viral, spreading to numerous countries across different social media platforms. Canadians and individuals around the world praised Singh for being calm, thick-skinned, and rational in his response. For them, Singh exemplifies the resilience necessary to handle unfair and at times violent attacks on his identity, explaining to his Brampton audience that “growing up as a brown-skinned, turbaned, bearded man, [he has] faced things like this before. It’s not a problem, [he] can deal with it”. This response demonstrates not only his strong character, but also is exactly the kind of rational response that voters seek in a potential leader. Canadians were proud to share this video, and Vice even used the headline “Watch a Canadian Sikh Politician Shut Down an Anti-Islam Protester”, branding Singh as Canadian rather than as NDP. This perhaps signals Singh’s potential as an icon of Canadian ideals of multiculturalism and acceptance. With the current global political climate, Canadians may be eager for a charismatic politician who represents idealistic values and will further already potent feelings of Canadian exceptionalism on the world stage. For this end, Singh may be the perfect candidate.
Another element often pointed out during Singh’s leadership campaign was that he was perhaps the most right-wing of the four candidates. Considering the NDP is historically Canada’s most left-wing major federal party, claims that Singh is “right-wing” should be evaluated relative to the rest of the parties and candidates. In fact, Singh was often compared to Justin Trudeau who is generally deemed centre-left. He was “accused of being a closeted Liberal”, and this was a factor considered to have hurt him in the NDP leadership campaign (though evidently not enough to cause him to lose). His similarities to Trudeau may have distinguished him in the NDP race, for better or for worse, but the comparison will not distinguish him in the effort to dethrone the Prime Minister in 2019. Singh will need to prove that he brings something different to the table, in order to avoid voters preferring an experienced incumbent over an ideological replica with no federal experience. To truly present an alternative to the current government, the NDP will need to distinguish themselves from the Liberals, and Singh’s personal distinction as a leader will be a critical means to this end. Singh will need to focus on new and distinct messaging, and cannot “work over the same ground as Trudeau, who has made young people and inclusiveness a big part of his brand”. Singh must create a brand for himself, and that brand cannot be “a less experienced version of Trudeau”.
In this way, Singh may be able to brand himself not as a lesser version of the incumbent, but as a new and improved version, leading to success in 2019.
Despite the potential obstacles to being similar to the incumbent Prime Minister, it may actually be what launches the NDP to success. While being more centrist may arguably have hurt his popularity among NDP members in the leadership race, being relatively centrist will appeal more generally to the Canadian masses in 2019. A similar approach was taken by the NDP in 2015 and may have failed due to desire for certain and radical change after a decade of Harper. In 2019, however, Trudeau will only have been in power for four years, generating less cynicism than Harper faced in 2015. Consequently, only mild change will be wanted, which is why a more moderate NDP could help rather than hurt Singh. Singh’s presentation of a more moderate face of the NDP may help him appeal to the more left-wing factions of the Liberal party. Singh presents similar promises as Trudeau used to win in 2015, but won’t have the same promise-breaking label that Trudeau will undoubtedly carry in the 2019 election. For instance, Singh’s commitment to making electoral reform a first priority in Parliament evokes strong memories of Trudeau’s almost identical campaign promise. However, Singh provides a concrete set of steps that will lead to reform, with a specific plan for the replacement system, unlike Trudeau who simply stated that 2015 would be the last election under the First Past the Post system. In this way, Singh may be able to brand himself not as a lesser version of the incumbent, but as a new and improved version, leading to success in 2019.
The 2019 federal election is almost exactly two years away, and in Canada, that is a long time for things to change. It’s too soon to tell how the 2019 election will play out, but it is already clear that Singh is unique in that there are elements to his campaign that have the potential to make or break him. Two of his most defining characteristics could equally impede any chance at success, or catapult him to popularity. Singh’s open religiosity may close him out to voters due to a discriminatory stigma, but it may also propel him to success as an icon of perceived Canadian values. Singh’s relative centrism could undermine his ability to present a viable alternative to Justin Trudeau, but it may also allow him to appeal to a large portion of usual Liberal voters. Singh will be an interesting case to watch over the next two years precisely due to the unpredictability of these factors and the range of possible outcomes Singh could secure in 2019.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.