The Scottish National party was on track on Saturday to remain by far the largest party in the devolved parliament at Holyrood, but looked likely to fall just short of winning a majority of the chamber’s 129 seats.
The pro-independence SNP won 59 of the 70 first-past-the-post constituency seats declared by Saturday afternoon, but was unable to take target marginals seen as essential for a majority in the partly proportionally representative parliament.
The fourth consecutive Scottish parliamentary election victory for the SNP means it will continue in government in Edinburgh with a powerful platform to push for a second referendum on independence from the UK.
However, the Conservative UK government is likely to use any SNP failure to win an outright majority as grounds for refusing to approve a rerun of the 2014 ballot, in which Scots backed staying in the union by 55-45 per cent.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s leader and Scotland’s first minister, said it had always been a “very, very long shot” for her party to win a majority in the proportionally representative parliament, a feat previously managed only in 2011. The SNP has run a minority government for the past five years.
“I’m feeling extremely happy and extremely confident that we are on track in the SNP for a fourth consecutive election victory and to have the ability to form a government again,” Sturgeon told the BBC at the Glasgow count on Friday.
Analysts said that even if the SNP fell short of a majority, the pro-independence Scottish Greens looked almost certain to win enough seats to ensure more than half of Holyrood MSPs back another referendum.
Sturgeon has repeatedly insisted that the UK government’s refusal to approve another independence vote will be unsustainable if there is overall majority support for one at Holyrood.
John Swinney, Scotland’s deputy first minister, said UK prime minister Boris Johnson should “just accept democracy in Scotland” if a majority of MSPs backed another referendum.
“That’s a fundamental democratic point. That’s what the people of Scotland will have voted for,” Swinney told the BBC on Saturday.
Johnson in January suggested Westminster should not approve another referendum until the 2050s at least. In an interview with The Telegraph newspaper published on Saturday the prime minister gave no details of his intentions, but said he thought a referendum “in the current context” would be “irresponsible and reckless”.
The final balance of the 56 MSPs selected via regional list seats were to be announced on Saturday after the declaration of the last few constituency seats.
Despite wins in some key target seats, SNP hopes of a majority suffered a heavy blow when tactical voting by Conservative party supporters helped Labour hold the eastern Scottish marginal of Dumbarton. In Aberdeenshire West, Liberal Democrat supporters helped the Tories fend off an SNP challenge.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university, said the Aberdeenshire West result made clear the SNP would not repeat its 2011 feat of winning a Holyrood majority. “The route to 65 [seats] is now clearly closed,” Curtice told the BBC.
But an improved performance by the Scottish Greens suggested there would be a larger Holyrood majority for a second referendum on leaving the UK. “The pro independence majority in the coming parliament will probably be a little more hefty,” said Mark Diffley, a consultant on Scottish public opinion.
Analysts said Labour looked unable to surpass the Conservatives as Scotland’s largest opposition party, despite what has been generally considered a good campaign for the once-dominant leftwing party’s new leader, Anas Sarwar.
Sarwar nearly doubled Labour’s vote in the Glasgow Southside constituency but was easily defeated by Sturgeon, the incumbent MSP. But the new leader insisted progress was being made in his “project” of changing Labour.
“Compared to where we were just 10 weeks ago when I took over this job, it is a magnificent turnaround,” he said.
Turnout across Scotland on Thursday was higher than in 2016, despite poor weather and snow across parts of the country and what many observers have judged a relatively lacklustre campaign.
Voters in Scottish parliamentary elections have two votes, with the fortunes of smaller parties largely determined by the one cast for regional party lists.
Constituency-level vote tallies suggested the new pro-independence Alba party launched by former SNP first minister Alex Salmond — which stood only on the regional lists — would fail to win a single seat.
Salmond told sympathetic bloggers on a video call that he was “on a bad run” after losing his Westminster seat in 2017. But the former SNP leader insisted Alba would continue as a home for “disaffected” independence supporters frustrated at what he said was Sturgeon’s failure to press the case for leaving the UK.
Graphics by Cale Tilford, Max Harlow, Joanna S Kao and Steven Bernard