Toronto: Canadian legislator Jagmeet Singh wants people to pay attention to his three-piece suit and brightly-coloured turbans, given they just might help bring down another sharp-dressing politician – Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The lawyer, 38, is a rising political star who aims to become the first person from an ethnic minority to lead a major political party in Canada. If he succeeds in taking over the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), he could become a major threat to Trudeau in an election set for 2019.
Singh, who entered the race in May, blew away his rivals in second quarter fundraising, data released on Monday showed. The NDP competes for the same centre-left voters as the Liberals.
Like the photogenic prime minister, Singh has been splashed across the pages of a glossy style magazine – GQ in his case, Vogue in Trudeau‘s – and generates the same kind of buzz that Trudeau does despite a smaller platform as a provincial legislator in Ontario.
Like Trudeau, Singh gathers crowds wherever he goes. On a recent tour in Toronto, he could barely walk five steps without being stopped and asked for a selfie.
He uses Twitter to make policy announcements and statements – a series of tweets explaining why he wanted to be party leader went viral in June and was featured on BuzzFeed – while his YouTube channel showcases legislative work.
“I have an incredibly strong appeal in one of the most vote-rich areas in our country,” Singh said.
Ipsos Public Affairs pollster Darrell Bricker calls Singh “a dangerous candidate” for Trudeau, especially in the Toronto region which accounts for about 20 percent of Parliament seats.
“When you look at what happens here, if he can have any impact on the vote at all it’s a threat,” he said.
Watching Singh, the Liberals believe he has not shown signs of expanding his support and chipping away at their voters, according to a senior party member from the city.
Vying for Millenials
Singh, who said as a young man he was subject to random stops by police, says the racial discrimination he suffered in his youth gives him an edge over his rivals.
“There are a lot of Canadians that have faced certain struggles in their lives … they see in me someone who understands those struggles,” he said at a vegan restaurant in between events.
His practice of wearing natty suits and turbans that vary from shocking pink to lime green dates back to his lawyer days when he was trying to dispel negative perceptions. His solution was to stand out as much as possible.
“It disarms people and it creates conversations. So fashion for me has been used as a tool to engage people, to disrupt their normal notions of someone who looks like me,” he said.
Singh is competing against three rivals in the leadership race and has the most endorsements from NDP legislators.
Although his core support comes from Canada’s influential Sikh population, he is seeking the backing of other ethnic communities as well as young voters.
But the challenges are great: He must first win the leadership in October, then win a federal seat in Parliament and persuade voters to switch from Trudeau to a party that has never held power federally.
While he speaks French fluently, he could also struggle in Quebec, the vote-rich, mainly French-speaking province, where public displays of faith are frowned upon.
Singh’s most realistic hope is to take over the party and win enough seats in 2019 to deprive Trudeau of his majority in Parliament. That would leave the Liberals dependent on the NDP, who could then demand concessions in return for support.
Former NDP national director Karl Belanger, who is unaligned, said Singh’s candidacy was intriguing but he will be hard pressed to wrest youth voters away from the prime minister.
“In Canada you already have a millennials’ champion and that guy is Justin Trudeau and he remains very popular. So how do you chip away at his brand?”