EDINBURGH: Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon goes into elections Thursday hoping victory will set the nation on the road to independence, but will have to overcome infighting and opposition in London.
The 50-year-old has become the pre-eminent force in Scottish politics, earning a reputation for assured leadership since becoming first minister in the country's devolved government in 2014.
She has earned points among voters for her management of the coronavirus pandemic. Her clear communication style is cast by her supporters in contrast to mixed messages emanating from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the health crisis.
But what should have been a smooth build-up to the elections has been overshadowed by months of mudslinging between Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, her former mentor and predecessor as first minister.
The spectacular falling out between the pair over the handling of sexual harassment claims against Salmond has seen Sturgeon facing questions over her judgement and her reputation for attention to detail.
Disagreements between the two political heavyweights reverberated into the election campaign and threatened to split the independence movement, with Salmond forming his own pro-independence party called Alba.
Sturgeon's SNP looks set to dominate at the ballot box, with one Ipsos MORI poll showing it on course to win 70 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament.
But questions remain over whether Scots will back independence in a referendum after all the infighting, with a string of surveys showing waning popular support for breaking away from the UK.
Nevertheless, Sturgeon said at the launch of her manifesto earlier in April that Johnson would have no "moral justification" to prevent a second vote on independence if the SNP emerges on top on Thursday.
The UK prime minister must approve the referendum, and has routinely ruled out a second one after Scottish voters rejected independence in 2014.
But in January, Sturgeon said Johnson was running scared, quoting Scotland's national poet Robert Burns, calling him a "timorous beastie".
For Sturgeon and the SNP, Britain's vote in 2016 to quit the European Union has changed the picture entirely. A majority of Scots wanted to stay in the EU.
A former lawyer labelled "Queen of Scots" by some in the media, Sturgeon argues for socially conscious policies she says were abandoned by the centre-left Labour party, once the dominant force in Scottish politics. - AFP