Glasgow, Scotland – Scotland’s ruling party secured an unprecedented fourth successive term in government on Saturday after cruising to victory in the Scottish parliamentary election.
The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) took 64 of the 129 seats up for grabs, just one short of an overall majority, with its nearest rivals, the unionist Scottish Conservatives, taking 31.
The result, which also saw the pro-independence Scottish Green Party secure eight seats, could pave the way for a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Voters across Scotland went to the polls on May 6, but coronavirus restrictions meant that tallying began later than normal.
Counting on the constituency part of the two-section ballot started on Friday, but not until Saturday evening, when the so-called regional lists were also allocated, were the full figures known.
The result means that, just as has been the case for the last 10 years, parties in favour of Scotland becoming a sovereign state outnumber parties which advocate remaining in the United Kingdom.
The SNP, headed by its leader and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has now won four of the Scottish Parliament’s past six elections ever since the devolved legislative body was established in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, in 1999.
This was Sturgeon’s second Scottish Parliamentary victory in her seven years at the helm of the SNP, and will be seen as a vote of confidence in her premiership.
“There is something about the SNP’s mixture of cautious centre-leftness, public duty and Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership that voters like,” Gerry Hassan, a high-profile Scottish political commentator and author, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s no accident that she’s had huge personal opinion poll ratings consistently.”
🏴 The people of Scotland have spoken – it's an SNP landslide.
✅ Highest number of votes
✅ Highest number of constituency seats ever
✅ Highest vote share ever in a Scottish election
👇 Once we rebuild Scotland from COVID, there will be an independence referendum. pic.twitter.com/k5Oq4hndh1
— The SNP (@theSNP) May 8, 2021
But wrangling over Scottish independence, rather than domestic policies, appeared once more to drive voters to the ballot box.
Scots rejected independence from the British state by 55 to 45 per cent in a referendum in 2014, but recent opinion polls have seen support for Scottish sovereignty often matching or exceeding support for the Union, and voting preferences have long been tied to Scotland’s constitutional future, especially since Scotland opted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union in Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum.
“We have a fresh mandate – the people have voted the SNP in and we will have another referendum because that’s democracy,” SNP candidate Roza Salih, who narrowly missed out on securing a seat on the regional list part of the ballot, told Al Jazeera.
The pro-EU SNP has committed to holding another plebiscite once the current COVID crisis is over.
With the Scottish Greens, the SNP has the numbers to win a vote on the matter in the newly elected chamber, just as the party did in the previous parliament.
But the UK’s Conservative Party Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to sanction another referendum, with the constitution a reserved matter for the Westminster Government in London, and a tense standoff between the two administrations began even before all the votes were counted.
“We would proceed with the legislation that is necessary, and that would only happen if it was passed by the Scottish Parliament,” Sturgeon told the media.
“If [Johnson] wanted to stop that it would be the case that he would have to go to the Supreme Court to challenge it – and that would be his decision, not mine.”
“What [the SNP and Sturgeon] are looking for is a fight,” Kevin Hague, a Scotland-based entrepreneur, pro-UK campaigner and chairman of These Islands, a pro-union think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“Because that’s how their grievance machine works. [Sturgeon] does not want an independence referendum any time soon because the people don’t want it and frankly she’d lose it.”
Despite Scotland’s mixed voting system making it enormously difficult to do so, Sturgeon will be disappointed not to have secured an outright majority for her party – something the SNP did in 2011.
But, with a renewed – and hefty – mandate from a record high turnout, the Scottish first minister will likely feel emboldened as she looks ahead to another five-year term in office.
She will also look to put behind her controversies surrounding her predecessor as both SNP leader and first minister, Alex Salmond, which threatened to destroy her premiership.
Once committed friends and allies, Sturgeon and Salmond’s relationship sensationally and publicly broke down after the latter was accused of sexually assaulting several women.
Salmond was acquitted by an Edinburgh court early last year, but Sturgeon has distanced herself from her former mentor whose own attempt to re-enter the Scottish political arena with his newly established pro-independence Alba Party hit the buffers after it failed to win any seats.
Arresting Scotland’s worsening drug crisis, as well as steering the constituent nation out of the current coronavirus pandemic, will be high on the list of Sturgeon’s priorities during her new term in office.
But, as ever, Scotland’s constitutional future will remain front and centre as Edinburgh and London gear up for what will likely be a very bitter showdown.