TORONTO (AP) -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party secured victory in parliamentary elections but failed to get the majority he wanted in a vote that focused on the coronavirus pandemic but that many Canadians saw as unnecessary.
Trudeau entered Monday's election leading a stable minority government that wasn't under threat of being toppled -- but he was hoping Canadians would reward him with a majority for navigating the pandemic better than many other leaders. Still, Trudeau struggled to justify why he called the election early given the virus, and the opposition was relentless in accusing him of holding the vote two years before the deadline for his own personal ambition.
In the end, the gamble did not pay off, and the results nearly mirrored those of two years ago. The Liberal Party was leading or elected in 156 seats -- one less than they won 2019, and 14 short of the 170 needed for a majority in the House of Commons.
The Conservatives were leading or elected in 121 seats, the same number they won in 2019. The leftist New Democrats were leading or elected in 27, a gain of three seats, while the Bloc Québécois remained unchanged with 32 seats and the Greens were down to two.
"You are sending us back to work with a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic," Trudeau said. "I hear you when you say you just want to get back to the things you love and not worry about this pandemic or an election."
But experts noted that it was not the victory Trudeau had hoped for.
"Trudeau lost his gamble to get a majority so I would say this is a bittersweet victory for him," said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal.
"Basically we are back to square one, as the new minority parliament will look like the previous one. Trudeau and the Liberals saved their skin and will stay in power, but many Canadians who didn't want this late summer, pandemic election are probably not amused about the whole situation," he said.
Trudeau bet Canadians didn't want a Conservative government during a pandemic, playing up his own party's successes. Canada has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and Trudeau's government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up the economy amid lockdowns. Trudeau argued that the Conservatives' approach, which has been skeptical of lockdowns and vaccine mandates, would be dangerous.
Trudeau supports making vaccines mandatory for Canadians to travel by air or rail, something the Conservatives oppose.
And he has pointed out that Alberta, run by a Conservative provincial government, is in crisis. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the province might run out of beds and staff for intensive care units within days. Kenney apologized for the dire situation and is now reluctantly introducing a vaccine passport and imposing a mandatory work-from-home order two months after lifting nearly all restrictions.
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole, meanwhile, didn't require his party's candidates to be vaccinated and would not say how many were not. O'Toole described vaccination as a personal health decision, but a growing number of vaccinated Canadians are increasingly upset with those who refuse to get the shot.
"The debate on vaccination and Trudeau taking on the anti-vaccination crowd helped the Liberals to salvage a campaign that didn't start well for the party," Béland said.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said the Conservatives were hurt by the situation in Alberta.
"The explosion of the pandemic in Alberta in the past 10 days undermined O'Toole's compliments of the Alberta Conservatives on how they had handled the pandemic and reinforced Trudeau's argument for mandatory vaccinations," he said.
The 49-year-old Trudeau channeled the star power of his father, the Liberal icon and late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he first won election in 2015 and has led his party to the top finish in two elections since.
A Conservative win would have represented a rebuke of Trudeau by a politician with a fraction of his name recognition. O'Toole, 47, is a military veteran, former lawyer and a member of Parliament for nine years.
"Canadians did not give Mr. Trudeau the majority mandate he wanted," O'Toole said. Conservative campaign co-chair Walied Soliman earlier said holding Trudeau to a minority government would be a win.
O'Toole said he was more determined than ever to continue but his party might dump him as it did the previous leader who failed to beat Trudeau in 2019.
O'Toole advertised himself a year ago as a "true-blue Conservative." He became Conservative Party leader with a pledge to "take back Canada," but immediately started working to push the party toward the political center.
O'Toole's strategy, which included disavowing positions held dear by his party's base on issues such as climate change, guns and balanced budgets, was designed to appeal to a broader cross section of voters in a country that tends to be far more liberal than its southern neighbor.
Whether moderate Canadians believed O'Toole is the progressive conservative he claims to be and whether he alienated traditional Conservatives became central questions of the campaign.
Regina Adshade, a 28-year-old Vancouver software developer, said she was bothered that an election was called early, during a pandemic and with wildfires burning in British Columbia. But it didn't stop her from voting Liberal because the party represents her values.
"I don't love there was an election right now, but it wasn't going to change my vote," she said.
Trudeau's legacy includes embracing immigration at a time when the U.S. and other countries closed their doors. He also legalized cannabis nationwide and brought in a carbon tax to fight climate change. And he preserved free trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico amid threats by former U.S. President Donald Trump to scrap the agreement.