MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — For Moez Mawani, Canada's election has been uninspiring.

The retired business owner voted for the incumbent Liberal candidate in his district, but with no great enthusiasm.

"It was a matter of picking the better of the two evils," he said after his casting his ballot at a Catholic school here.

Terence Norton, a retired director of a pharmaceutical company, opted for the Conservative challenger. He said the Conservative platform will "put more money in the pockets of average Canadians."

In church basements, community centers and - of course - hockey arenas, voters across Canada are casting ballots Monday, Oct. 21, in an election that will determine whether beleaguered Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets a second mandate or the country gets a new leader.


The vote caps an acrimonious contest dominated by scandal and personal attacks. Polls show Trudeau's Liberals in a dead heat with Andrew Scheer's Conservatives; with neither party in striking distance of a parliamentary majority, the next government will likely need support from smaller parties to stay in power. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the third largest party, the left-leaning New Democrats, has ruled out propping up a Conservative government.

The closeness of the race would have seemed far-fetched when Trudeau swept to power four years ago, riding a wave of support reminiscent of the enthusiasm for his father, longtime Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a generation earlier. The younger Trudeau's promises of "real change" and "doing politics differently" resonated with voters after nearly ten years of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

But unkept promises and scandal have blunted the telegenic Liberal leader's prospects. He cast himself as a steward of the environment, but bought an oil pipeline last year for $3.4 billion. His former attorney general, the first indigenous woman in that role, accused him and his senior aides this year of improperly pressuring her to interfere in the criminal prosecution of a Quebec-based construction giant. Last month, images and a video of a younger Trudeau in brownface and blackface damaged his reputation as a champion of diversity. He apologized, repeatedly.

"He can't even remember how many times he put blackface on, because the fact of the matter is he's always wearing a mask," Scheer, 40, crowed during one debate.

A "pro-Brexit before it was cool" father of five, Scheer has struggled to expand support for the Conservatives outside of their base. He has drawn criticism for his antiabortion views and his refusal to say whether he still opposes same-sex marriage. If he becomes prime minister, he will be the first in Canadian history to also hold U.S. citizenship - citizenship he confirmed only after it was reported this month by the Globe and Mail. (He says he filed paperwork to renounce it in August, but he and his party have criticized other lawmakers for their dual citizenship, sparking charges of hypocrisy.)

Scheer dodged questions over the weekend about reports that the Conservatives hired an ex-Liberal strategist for a "seek and destroy" operation on the People's Party of Canada, a hard-right party led by Maxime Bernier, a former Conservative lawmaker. And he warned that Trudeau would decriminalize all illicit drugs, despite Trudeau's repeated assertions that he will not.

For the Liberals to hold onto power, they'll need a good showing in critical battlegrounds: Quebec and the vote-rich suburbs outside of Toronto and Vancouver. A bump in support for the New Democrats and a resurgent separatist Bloc Québécois in Quebec could spell trouble.

Pollster Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, said the election's results will also rest on voter turnout, and whether the "mushy" progressive vote unites around Trudeau as it did in 2015. Vote splitting among progressives would benefit the Conservatives.

In Mississauga, an ethnically diverse middle-class Toronto suburb, roughly two dozen voters lined up outside a gymnasium at St. Jude Separate School early Monday waiting for the polls to open. A kindergarten teacher explained to her wide-eyed students: "They're picking our prime minister."

Canadians don't vote directly for prime minister. Voters in each of the nation's 338 districts, or ridings, choose a local candidate to represent them in the House of Commons. If one party gains a majority - 170 seats - its leader becomes prime minister. If, as was expected Monday, no party reaches a majority, convention dictates that the incumbent gets first crack at trying to form a government, either by negotiating a formal coalition with other parties, or by seeking their support on a bill-by-bill basis.

Nawal Khokhar said she voted with the future of her young daughter in mind. The 28-year-old business consultant cast a ballot for Navdeep Bains, the local Liberal candidate, who was innovation minister in Trudeau's cabinet. She said she wasn't wooed by the Conservatives' promise of tax cuts.

"Am I okay with getting a little bit better of a tax cut today, but having my child grow up in an environment that isn't as inclusive?" she asked. "That's really my choice."

Simon Malevich, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, is one of the 4.7 million people who voted early. He cast a ballot for the Conservatives in 2015, but has since had a "change of heart" - this time, he voted for the New Democratic Party.

"I don't think Justin Trudeau has lived up to the promises that he made in 2015," said Malevich, 24. "I'm worried about inaction on climate change. I don't think it was a good idea that we bought a pipeline."

He said the campaign left much to be desired.

"This election hasn't been about policy ideas between the two major parties," Malevich said. "It has been about 'gotcha' moments."

Canada's federal elections watchdog said last week that 29% more people voted early than in 2015. But early voting numbers do not necessarily predict final turnout.

This is the first federal election since the Supreme Court ruled in January that expats have the right to vote no matter how long they have lived outside of Canada. Previously, Canadians who had lived abroad for more than five years were ineligible.

Canadians complain that the campaign has been heavy on name calling and light on issues. Trudeau wore a bulletproof vest at a rally in Mississauga this month following a security threat. He accused his Conservative foes of running the "nastiest" campaign in the country's history.

At a packed rally in Richmond Hill, Ontario, over the weekend, Scheer supporters aimed a chant of "lock him up" at Trudeau. Scheer tried to turn them to "vote him out."

Canada's foreign signals intelligence agency said this year that "some form" of foreign cyber interference in the election was "very likely." The government established a panel of nonpartisan senior bureaucrats to monitor attempts at interference and to notify the public about serious incidents. So far, it has made no such announcements.

Given how close the race is, it could be a long night. Voting results will begin to trickle in from Atlantic Canada starting at 6 p.m. Eastern time, but the more pivotal results that could determine the outcome of the race won't emerge until after 9:30 p.m. Eastern time, when polls close in Ontario and Quebec. The last polls close at 10 p.m. Eastern time in British Columbia, the westernmost province.

This article was written by Amanda Coletta as a special to The Washington Post.