Whenever anyone is looking at the AFN national chief election they have to consider who the electorate is. This is not a vote by the aboriginal people of Canada, but the vote of the 620 or so eligible chiefs in Canada. This election has very little to do with issues or the bigger picture, it is all about the social relationships between the chiefs.
The chiefs in Canada meet nationally once a year but they also meet regionally. In the case of BC the chiefs see each other at First Nation Summit or UBCIC meetings. Some of these chiefs have been seeing each other at these meetings for decades now, they spent many hours in the room together and have relationships. It is the social capital of these relationships that ultimately is the primary deciding factor in the election.
Without a lot of strong personal connections with the chiefs across Canada there is no hope in getting elected. Twice the AFN has elected relative outsiders or reformers to the position of National Chief.
Ovide Mecredi elected 1991 who was defeated in 1997 even though he raised the profile of First Nations issues dramatically in the country. He lost because he had not built up a strong social capital with the chiefs across the country. I remember being at the 1997 AFN election and seeing how desperate Ovide was during the vote. The chief I worked for was supportive of him and Ovide at one point came to him almost begging him to try and build up support among the chiefs - too little too late.
Matthew Coon-Come won in 2000 because Phil Fontaine was seen as too close to the government, he did not win because he was a reformer. He was then defeated in 2003 because he was not the sort of guy that would glad hand the chiefs.
I think Ovide Mecredi and Matthew Coon-Come are two of the best leaders the AFN has had.
What people have to also understand in this election is how conservative the chiefs are. For most chiefs the position of being chief is the best paying job they will ever have. As much as they hate the Indian Act system, it is working for them on a personal level. Voting for someone that is going to dramatically rock the boat nationally is simply not something most chiefs are willing to contemplate. The chiefs are willing to accept incremental change over time. This effectively means no radical candidate has any hope of making it past the first ballot.