Nicola Sturgeon has played down the prospects of winning an overall Holyrood majority despite a late surge in wins for the Scottish National party.
The first minister and Scottish National party leader told reporters in Glasgow “a majority has always been a very, very long shot” as counts across the country showed support for sitting Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates.
But the first day of results left the SNP with a significant and unassailable lead over their closest rivals, the Conservatives and Labour, taking 38 of the 47 constituency seats which declared on Friday.
Speaking earlier, Sturgeon said: “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 and that’s an extraordinary achievement for any political party.”
With Scottish election counting taking place over two days, Friday’s results found the SNP on 47% of the overall vote, with the Tories and Labour on 22% and 21% respectively. Those vote shares were close to their showings in 2016, when the SNP won 63 of Holyrood’s 129 seats.
However, the SNP’s hopes of achieving an historic second overall majority were dealt a significant blow after Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, held Dumbarton, a seat which had Scotland’s narrowest majority of 109 votes.
She increased her majority to 1,483 votes, with the Tory vote plummeting after Baillie was helped by anti-SNP tactical voting. That left Labour with two seats, the Tories with three and the Lib Dems with four, with 82 seats still to be counted. A final result after Holyrood’s 56 top-up list seats are counted is not expected until late on Saturday.
Sir John Curtice, the elections expert, said Baillie’s victory made it unlikely Sturgeon would win an overall majority. “Unionist tactical voting seems to have played a key role in denying the SNP their majority in this election,” he told the BBC.
The SNP enjoyed several gains. Edinburgh Central, won by the former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson as her party surged in popularity in 2016, was won comfortably by Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former Westminster leader who is widely tipped as a contender to succeed Sturgeon if she steps down.
The SNP also defeated the Tories in Ayr, unseating Holyrood’s veteran former deputy presiding officer John Scott, and, in a blow to Labour, won East Lothian.
In a further boost to Sturgeon, her former ally and now fierce rival Alex Salmond effectively conceded he and his new hardline pro-independence party Alba would fail to win any seats.
The new party, founded only a few weeks ago, was polling at just above 2% nationwide, well below the 5 to 6% needed to win list seats. Asked on BBC Scotland whether he anticipated a win, Salmond said: “I don’t think so from the results we have seen.”
That leaves Sturgeon able to forge a new pro-independence pact with the Scottish Greens, who are forecast to do well on the list. The opinion polls put the Greens on 10%, and suggest they could win 10 seats. Assuming the polls are accurate, that would allow them to form a pro-referendum majority in Holyrood.
With voters barraged by Conservative warnings that Sturgeon would press for a second independence referendum if she wins a majority, there was a record turnout in polling stations across the country as shy Tory voters turned out in larger than normal numbers.
In some constituencies, the turnout exceeded 70%, well above the national average of 55% in 2016, defying predictions the Covid crisis and voter fatigue would drive down turnout. One significant factor remains Sturgeon’s increased popularity during the pandemic, boosting SNP support.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, held North East Fife with an increased majority of 7,421 over the SNP as the Tory vote swung heavily behind him. Labour held Edinburgh Southern with a 10-point increase and the Lib Dems retained Edinburgh Western with a substantially increased majority.