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National Chief Shawn Atleo greets attendees at a memorial service to commemorate fallen warriors from 1812 at Fort York in Toronto on Monday, July 16, 2012.MICHELLE SIU/The Canadian Press

Three votes means a couple of more hours.

Had Shawn Atleo received 321 rather than 318 votes Wednesday afternoon, he would have received 60 per cent of the vote and would have been sworn in by now for a second term as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. But it was not quite to be.

It will take a third ballot to seal the re-election deal. But that deal is done.

Pam Palmater, the Ontario-based lawyer and professor, grew her vote a smidgeon, to 107 from 95, while the other surviving candidates languished in the three-dozen range or below. None of them has the slightest chance of catching the incumbent national chief.

Had the chiefs known Mr. Atleo was this close, some of them no doubt would have changed their votes.

Manitoba Chief Terence Nelson removed himself from the third ballot, throwing his support to Ms. Palmater. But since that support consisted of 25 votes, it made no never mind.

The third ballot should be out by around 6:30 p.m. That should end it.

It was clear from the first ballot result that there was simply no momentum behind any candidate to challenge the incumbent chief.

Not only will Mr. Atleo almost certainly go on to lead the AFN, the result vindicates his policy of co-operation with the Harper government in improving the quality of life on reserves, especially in the area of education.

Mr. Atleo's challengers alleged he had failed to confront the Conservatives in asserting a native veto over the exploitation of natural resources on lands claimed by first nations.

But with 53 per cent of the vote on the first ballot – just shy of the 60 per cent needed for victory – Mr. Atleo has rebutted that criticism, emphatically. He clearly has the confidence of the chiefs.

Voting for the national chief has been known to go on forever. The contest that elected Mr. Atleo in 2009 lasted 23 hours. That will almost certainly not be the case now.

Mr. Atleo had great strength in British Columbia, whence he hails, and support in Ontario. But the Prairie chiefs are among those most discontented with his leadership.

They want the national chief to be much more in the Harper government's face. The question for those chiefs was, once favourite sons and daughters were eliminated from the ballot, whether they could coalesce around a challenger.

But only Ontario-based lawyer and professor Pam Palmater managed to secure more than three dozen votes in the first round.

This race isn't just Shawn Atleo's to lose. It's his, period.