The SNP’s hopes of winning a majority in the Holyrood election dropped significantly on Saturday after the party lost out in the key seat of Aberdeenshire West.
The failure to win there makes it harder for Nicola Sturgeon to win an overall majority in the 129-seat Parliament – something the SNP had wanted to strengthen their case for a second independence referendum.
Conservative Alexander Burnett held on to the seat with 19,709 votes, increasing his majority there and defeating Fergus Mutch, who polled 16,319 for the SNP.
The SNP also failed to gain another of their key targets – Galloway and West Dumfries – from the Scottish Conservatives.
STV election analyst Rob Johns said: “The tactical squeeze on the SNP has been enough to keep them at bay in a lot of the target seats they needed.
“I say that they needed, they weren’t far short of a majority last time around but the way the system works is that the SNP does so well in the constituencies that it struggles badly to pick up the votes that we are going to hear declared later in the list.
“They needed to win 64, maybe all 65, of the majority on the constituencies given the way things are looking on the list, and in the last few hours we have seen all of those potential opportunities to get close to that just closing – not often by much but enough to suggest that unionist tactical vote has kept them (at bay)”
The coronavirus pandemic meant traditional overnight counts were abandoned after Thursday’s Scottish Parliament election, with counting instead taking place on Friday and Saturday.
And while new MSPs at Holyrood have still to be declared, Sturgeon said it is “almost certain” the SNP will win its fourth term in power at Holyrood.
She also stressed that “when the time is right”, she should be able to offer Scots “the choice of a better future” in a second independence referendum.
However, when asked what he would do if Sturgeon attempted to hold one without a Section 30 order from Westminster granting permission, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted there was “no case now for such a thing”.
The SNP has pledged to push forward with legislation at Holyrood for a second Scottish independence referendum which, if passed, could be challenged by the UK Government in court.
STV Political Editor Colin Mackay said: It’s not just about whether we get the mandate for another independence referendum, it’s about how they get the legislation through when they form the next government on Monday because that’s what’s going to happen.
“No one has been under any illusion that it was going to be anybody other than the SNP that was going to form the next government – it’s now absolutely clear that that is what is going to happen. I think the way things are at the moment it looks like 64 (seats) is the highest they can possibly get.”