EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Scotland is holding a parliamentary election on Thursday that has been transformed into a proxy vote over whether the nation should get another say on whether to leave the United Kingdom.
Scotland's leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has described the election as the most important in the country's history. The outcome could ultimately put Scotland on the path towards breaking its 314-year union with England.
Seven years ago, Scottish voters rejected independence.
But Britain's departure from the European Union, a perception that Scotland's government handled the COVID-19 crisis well, and antipathy to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government in Westminster have bolstered support for independence.
Sturgeon is hoping her Scottish National Party will win an outright majority in the devolved parliament to claim the democratic and moral right to hold another referendum.
Here is a guide to how the election will work:
WHAT IS SCOTLAND VOTING FOR?
Scotland will elect lawmakers to its devolved parliament in Edinburgh, known as Holyrood. Scotland has had its own parliament since 1999 with control over areas such as healthcare, education and some taxation.
The nation has a proportional representation electoral system designed to stop one party being too powerful. Each person gets two votes on polling day. One for their local constituency lawmaker and one for a party in the regional list.
Results for the regional list are weighted in favor of parties that are less successful during the constituency votes.
WHAT IS AT STAKE IN THIS ELECTION?
The SNP are hoping to gain at least four more seats to win a majority of 65 in the 129-seat parliament.
The only time the SNP have done this before in 2011, Britain's then-Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to pressure and agreed to a referendum in 2014. Scots then voted by 55-45% to remain in the union.
Regardless of the result, Johnson is expected to turn down any request for another referendum. He has said the issue was settled seven years ago and was a once in a generation event. This will result in a tussle between the Scottish and British government over who has the power to call a referendum.
If there was another vote and the Scots voted to leave, it would mark the biggest shock to the United Kingdom since Irish independence a century ago.
WHAT’S THE LIKELY OUTCOME?
According to the polls, the SNP is heading for a fourth term in office. But the party's chances of winning an outright majority, which could be central to its independence hopes, are too close to call.
The average of the last 10 polls suggest the party are on course to win 64 seats in the 129-seat parliament, one seat short of an overall majority.
The Greens, who also back independence, are expected to pick up about 10 seats and would provide a majority in support of another referendum, the polls show. However, if the SNP fail to win an outright majority it will be easier for the British government to resist demands for another vote.
WHEN WILL THE RESULTS BE ANNOUNCED?
In previous Scottish elections, the counting started soon after voting closes with the results being announced overnight. However, the coronavirus pandemic means that the votes in this election will not be counted until the following morning.
Forty seven results are be announced on Friday and the remaining 82 will be announced on Saturday.
WHAT ARE THE KEY BATTLEGROUNDS?
Dumbarton: This is the most marginal seat in Scotland and includes the Faslane nuclear submarine base. The seat is currently held by the Labour Party's deputy leader Jackie Baillie. The seat is a key target for the SNP and one of only seven constituencies that they have never won since the creation of the Scottish parliament. The result is expected on Friday.
Edinburgh Central: This is a highly symbolic seat because it is at the heart of Scotland's capital. It includes the Scottish parliament. Edinburgh previously voted against independence. The former SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson is attempting to win it back for the party. The Scottish Conservatives won the seat by just 610 votes in 2016. The result is expected on Friday.
Ayr: The Conservatives have held the seat for the past two decades. At the last election, the Conservatives held the seat by 750 votes - this was the third most marginal constituency. This is a target for the SNP. The result is expected on Friday.
(Writing by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Angus MacSwan)