By Elisabeth O'Leary
EDINBURGH (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May's decision to seek an early election on June 8 gives Scotland a chance to reinforce its democratic mandate to hold an independence referendum, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested on Tuesday.
May unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that she would seek an early election, arguing she needed to shore up support for her Brexit strategy as Britain embarks on years of divorce talks with the European Union.
"In terms of Scotland, this move is a huge political miscalculation by the Prime Minister," said Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party (SNP) is seeking a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom which May opposes.
"It will once again give people the opportunity to reject the (Conservative government's) narrow, divisive agenda, as well as reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists for giving the people of Scotland a choice on their future."
Sturgeon has called for an independence vote in late 2018 or early 2019, before Brexit takes effect, but May has said it was not the right time to revisit the independence issue.
The SNP now has 54 of Scotland's 59 seats in Britain's Westminster parliament after the last national election in 2015, while the Conservatives have just one.
However, in elections to Scotland's devolved parliament in 2016, the SNP lost seats and fell just short of an overall majority, while the Conservatives made gains.
"The Conservatives had their worst performance ever in Scotland at the last 2015 election, so they might expect to improve on that given their partial recovery in the Scottish Parliament," said Nicola McEwen, professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh.
"But it’s also true that the Scottish electorate have been very good at distinguishing between Westminster elections and devolved elections and have often voted distinctly. And polls suggest Theresa May and the Conservative government are very unpopular in Scotland."
Sturgeon will hope that a strong showing in the June 8 election would strengthen momentum for her independence plans.
But polls indicate most Scots do not support a new independence vote at this stage. The campaign could also expose weaknesses in the SNP's proposals regarding what kind of EU membership Scotland could hope to get after Brexit.
Scots rejected independence in 2014 by a 10-point margin. But they voted last June to remain in the EU and Sturgeon says that means Scotland needs a new referendum on secession to avoid being dragged out of the bloc against its will.
"Only a vote for the Scottish Conservatives will send a strong message that we oppose the SNP's divisive plan for a second referendum," said Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland.
(Editing by Estelle Shirbon and Angus MacSwan)