Shawn Atleo is just three votes shy of being re-elected as the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, coming out of the second ballot Wednesday with a strong lead of 318 votes.
Mr. Atleo, the hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in B.C., needs 321 votes or 60 per cent of the ballot to secure the office. He received 284 votes in the first ballot.
Mi'kmak lawyer Pam Palmater was the runner-up again in the second ballot, garnering 107 votes. She has been a vocal critic of Mr. Atleo's tenure at the helm of the AFN, saying he was too close with the Harper government and had little to show for it.
There are only four candidates now left on the third ballot – Mr. Atleo, Ms. Palmater, Northwest Territories Bill Erasmus and Manitoba lawyer Diane Kelly, and the mood is jubilant among Mr. Atleo's supporters.
"It will be shocking if he doesn't win it," said chief councillor Julie Morrison from the Gitanmaax band council in B.C.
Roughly 535 first nations chiefs and their proxies casted their ballots in the second round of voting in Toronto on Wednesday to choose the new national chief.
At the last AFN election in 2009, Mr. Atleo's win was far less assured with votes running on for a record 23 hours. But in that election, there was no incumbent as long-time chief Phil Fontaine had called it quits.
Three of the eight candidates – AFN regional chief of Alberta George Stanley, Manitoba lawyer Joan Jack and Oka crisis spokesperson Ellen Gabriel – were dropped off the ballot, and former Roseau River Chief Terry Nelson withdrew from the race after getting only 25 votes.
Both Ms. Gabriel and Mr. Nelson asked their voters to throw their support behind Ms. Palmater.
"I think all the candidates are strategizing right now and figuring out behind the doors what can be done," she said. "But I support Pam Palmater because we both agree that the AFN has become a very exclusive organization and doesn't really reflect the community. We both want to change that."
Many observers speculated the race would turn into a two-person race between Mr. Atleo and Ms. Palmater. However, with second ballot results, Mr. Atleo appears to be on track towards re-election.
Even with Ms. Gabriel and Mr. Nelson's votes, Ms. Palmater will not likely have enough votes to supplant Mr. Atleo's lead. And some voters who support Ms. Palmater say they've resigned themselves to a loss.
"The candidate [Ms. Gabriel] I supported was dropped off the ballot, so now I'm voting for Pam … but I think people know Atleo is going to win," said chief Alex Batisse of the Matachewan First Nation in Ontario.
The remaining candidates - Anishinaabe lawyer Diane Kelly and AFN Regional Chief of the Northwest Territories Bill Erasmus– all received less than 40 votes each in the second ballot.
Most of the candidates remain tight-lipped. Mr. Erasmus refused to elaborate on his strategy or odds of succeeding; only saying "I got into this to win."
Mr. Atleo also refused to speak with the media, although he met with some of the other candidates, including Ms. Jack.
"He asked me to support him, and I think I would," Ms. Jack said, adding she would ask the chiefs who voted for her to also consider Ms. Kelly. "But not Pam Palmater … I didn't like her campaign and how she was attacking Shawn Atleo, so I won't support her."
The chiefs are now heading into a third ballot, with the results expected at 6:30 p.m.
Facts and figures
3: Saskatchewan has produced the most national chiefs, followed by two each from Manitoba and B.C., and one each from Ontario, Quebec and Northwest Territories
60: The percentage of votes a candidate needs to get to win the national chief election
9: The number of years Phil Fontaine served as the longest serving national chief
23: The record number of hours the voting lasted in an AFN election
0: While four women are running in the AFN national chief election, no female has ever held that office before
2,206: Total number of people attending the AFN general assembly
314: Total number of chiefs attending
164: Total number of proxies attending
202: B.C. has the most possible votes with 202 chiefs, followed by Ontario (134), Saskatchewan (75), Manitoba (63), Alberta (48), Quebec (42), Northwest Territories (29), New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island (17), Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador (16), and the Yukon (14).