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Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon talks with SNP candidate Angus Robertson during a campaign visit to LOVE Gorgie Farm in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 4, 2021.

JANE BARLOW/AFP/Getty Images

People across Scotland will head to the polls on Thursday in an election that’s likely to set the stage for a showdown over independence.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party appears headed for a major victory, which will bolster her call for a referendum on sovereignty and pose a direct challenge to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is straining to keep the United Kingdom together.

“If people in Scotland vote for a party saying, ‘When the time is right, there should be an independence referendum,’ you cannot stand in the way of that,” Ms. Sturgeon told reporters recently.

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Alex Salmond is back, looking for a second shot at Scottish independence

Once allies, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and former mentor Alex Salmond locked in bitter feud

The British government has to approve a referendum and so far Mr. Johnson has ruled it out, arguing that Scots made their decision in 2014 when they voted 55 per cent to stay in the U.K. But analysts say Mr. Johnson will have a hard time denying Ms. Sturgeon if the SNP wins a majority on Thursday.

“It is difficult for Boris Johnson, having won his own majority [in the 2019 election] with a mandate to get Brexit done, to ignore the similar pressures and demands from Scotland,” said Nicola McEwen, a politics professor at the University of Edinburgh and co-director of the Centre on Constitutional Change. “It does raise questions then about if a majority is not a route to an independence referendum, what is? What is the democratic path?”

The Scottish vote is one of hundreds of elections taking place across Britain on what many observers are calling Super Thursday. Nearly 5,000 seats are up for grabs in local councils across England, while voters in Wales will also elect a new regional parliament. All eyes will be on whether the recent scandals surrounding Mr. Johnson, including who paid for renovations to his living quarters at Downing Street, will affect the Conservative Party’s standing or if the Labour Party under new leader Sir Keir Starmer can win back some of the ground it lost in 2019.

Council staff carry ballot boxes and a sign to a van as they prepare to deliver them to polling stations ahead of Scottish parliamentary election held on May 6, at the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, May 4, 2021.

RUSSELL CHEYNE/Reuters

But the main contest is in Scotland and whether the SNP can pull off a majority.

It won’t be easy given Scotland’s hybrid electoral system, which is a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. Each voter gets two ballots: one for a constituency Member of the Scottish Parliament and another for a list of regional MSPs selected by parties. There are 73 riding MSPs and 56 regional or list members.

The SNP is expected to win most of the constituency seats but voters tend to select a different party on their regional ballot. In the past, that has left Ms. Sturgeon heading a minority government and reliant on the Green Party, which also backs independence.

This election could be a breakthrough for the SNP. Ms. Sturgeon is a popular leader and she’s won high marks for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Opinion polls put the SNP on track to win just enough seats for an outright majority. The Green Party is also expected to do well, which will boost the pro-independence majority in Parliament. That will give Ms. Sturgeon more room for her main priority: a referendum on independence within two years.

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The First Minister has been itching for another shot at sovereignty ever since the 2016 U.K. vote on Britain’s membership in the European Union. While the country as a whole narrowly voted to the leave the EU, Scots backed remaining in the bloc by 62 per cent. Ms. Sturgeon has argued that Brexit fundamentally changed Scotland and that people deserve an opportunity to decide whether they want their own country.

One key reason for Mr. Johnson’s hesitancy in granting her request has been the rising support for independence. Most polling over the past year has put the Yes side at or above 50 per cent. Much of that is because of Brexit and a sense among many pro-European voters that sovereignty is the only way for Scotland to rejoin the EU.

“Brexit has reshaped party allegiance,” said Sir John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Nearly all of the increase in support for independence, and the SNP, has occurred among those who voted Remain in 2016, he said. “In the last two months, the polls have recorded just 32 per cent support [for independence] among Leave voters but as much as 54 per cent among Remain supporters.”

As a result, Sir John said Thursday’s election will be a “quasi-referendum on sovereignty and the outcome, perhaps, will give us quite a good idea of where we’re actually at.”

Joe Meighan is among the Scottish voters who backed Remain and now favours the SNP and independence. “A lot of people were disillusioned by Brexit and have fallen into the independence category now,” said Mr. Meighan, 27, a law student who used to support the Labour Party. “People think it might be the only way forward for Scotland as a sort of liberal democratic, European outlooking government.”

If a referendum is called, it won’t be clear sailing for Ms. Sturgeon. She’ll have to address concerns about the Scottish-England border and how trade would flow if Scotland rejoined the EU. Several recent studies have also shown that Scotland’s economy would take a beating if it left the U.K.

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“The spectre of Quebec hangs over this,” added Tony Travers, a professor in the school of public policy at the London School of Economics, referring to the two referendums on Quebec sovereignty that both resulted in No victories. “If you are running an independence referendum and then you do it a second time you really need to be sure you win on the second occasion because otherwise it could be seen to damage the cause irreparably.”

Other races to watch on Thursday:

Wales:

Scotland isn’t the only constitutional headache for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Voters in Wales are also electing a new assembly and support for independence, and the pro-sovereignty Plaid Cymru, has been rising. Recent polls have pegged support for independence as high as 39 per cent, up from three per cent six years ago. Other surveys show that Plaid Cymru is on track to finish second to the Labour Party, its best result ever.

London:

After a year-long delay because of the pandemic, voters in London will elect a mayor and city council on Thursday. Incumbent Mayor Sadiq Khan, 50, has a commanding lead in the polls and is widely expected to win a second term. The post doesn’t carry the same power as big city mayors in Canada or the United States, and Mr. Khan, a former Labour MP, has been pushing Westminster for more control over spending. He’s also become a high-profile critic of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative government.

England:

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The Conservatives look set for modest gains in council races across England, particularly in the north, where Mr. Johnson scored a major breakthrough in the 2019 parliamentary election. The Tories are benefiting from the success of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and voters appear unperturbed by the scandals engulfing the Prime Minister. The Tories are also in contention to win a parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, a northern riding that has been held by Labour since 1974. Sir Keir has been campaigning hard to keep the seat for Labour but he has played down hopes within the party of a big come back across the north.

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