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Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and junior minister Peter Kent react after Canada was forced into a run-off vote against Portugal at United Nations headquarters in New York on Oct. 12, 2010.DON EMMERT/AFP / Getty Images

Canada's hopes of returning to the top body of the United Nations ended in crushing disappointment Tuesday when it withdrew from contention, handing victory to Portugal.

The defeat marks a significant embarrassment for Stephen Harper's government. It is the first time in more than 50 years Canada has not won a campaign for a temporary seat on the Security Council.

In Tuesday's election, Portugal garnered 113 votes in the second round, less than two-thirds of the ballots cast, which is the hurdle for a win. Canada received just 78 votes. As a third round of voting commenced, Canada announced it would no longer seek the seat.

Germany, heavily favoured ahead of the vote to secure a seat, won the other seat up for grabs in an earlier round of voting.

Mr. Harper's office wasted little time assigning blame for the disappointment, placing it at the feet of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

"I would say a big deciding factor was the fact that Canada's bid did not have unity because we had Mr. Ignatieff questioning and opposing Canada's bid," Dimitri Soudas, Harper's communications director, told The Canadian Press.

"That was a factor that played ultimately against Canada because people outside of Canada were saying, 'Well, Germany and Portugal have a united front, their opposition and their governments seem to be fully, 100 per cent behind this bid.'

"Canada did not have that required advantage. We had an Opposition Leader that opposed Canada and clearly was not in it for Canada on this one."

The results of Tuesday's election, in a secret ballot cast by representatives of the UN's 192 nations, mark a major setback for Canada's international ambitions.

Although ambivalent about the campaign earlier, the government switched gears and made it a priority. Ottawa had paid keen attention to the United Nations in recent weeks.

The Prime Minister delivered two speeches there in September, the first at a development summit and the second at the organization's opening debate. Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon made several trips to New York to woo diplomats in person and attended Tuesday's vote, saying earlier in the morning that he was "confident" of Canada's chances.

In its bid to win a seat, Canada worked to portray itself as a model global citizen, with a strong track record in peacekeeping missions, diplomatic work, and multilateral cooperation. But such campaigns are not won on international reputation alone - indeed, aggressive "vote swapping" is required in order to triumph, where countries trade support in the Security Council election for backing in other forums.

Although Canada was favoured over Portugal heading into Tuesday's vote, the election process is notoriously unpredictable. Nations have been known to promise their support to one candidate only to switch allegiance in the final vote. A former Australian ambassador to the UN called it the "rotten lying bastards" phenomenon after his country lost a bid for a seat on the Security Council.

Tuesday's drama began just before 10 o'clock ET, as diplomats started to gather in the main UN chamber. On their desks, they found small gifts as a last reminder from the hopeful candidates (Canada's appeared to be a vial of maple syrup).

The representatives were asked to remain seated as the paper ballots were distributed. Shortly afterward, six aides roamed the packed room, each accompanied by a diplomat, carrying boxes to collect the ballots. For one tense hour, the delegates circulated, making conversation as the votes were counted.

At about 11:30, the results were announced, but neither Canada nor Portugal received the requisite number of votes in the first round. A tense second round followed, after which Canada withdrew. (India, South Africa and Colombia ran uncontested for the other three seats.)

Some experts worried that Ottawa's belated embrace of the campaign meant that Canada faced a tougher fight in the vote than it should have. The country has served six terms on the Security Council, the most recent in 1999-2000.

Last week, the Harper government lashed out at critics of its campaign, particularly Mr. Ignatieff, who had questioned whether Canada deserved the seat in light of the country's recent policies.

The most exclusive club at the UN, the Security Council is the only body which has the right to impose its will on other members. Much of council's work takes place in negotiations between its five permanent members - the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain - but the ten elected members are courted for their votes. Membership also would have provided a platform to focus diplomatic attention on issues that Canada deemed important.