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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks at a Glasgow counting centre on May 7, 2021.

POOL/Getty Images

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was dealt a setback in her quest for a referendum on Scottish independence when her party failed to win a majority in local elections.

The Scottish National Party won 64 seats in Scotland’s Parliament, one shy of what the party needed for a majority. That result was one more than the party held heading into the election.

The SNP took the most seats and Ms. Sturgeon will return to government with support of the Green Party, which also supports independence and will have eight members of the Scottish Parliament, or MSPs.

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Winning an overall majority isn’t easy under Scotland’s electoral system, which is a mixture of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. But the SNP had high hopes for a resounding victory in Thursday’s election to bolster Ms. Sturgeon’s call for a referendum on sovereignty within two years. They had also been buoyed by opinion polls showing an increase in support for sovereignty and Ms. Sturgeon’s high popularity among voters.

Ballot counting was delayed because of COVID-19 restrictions, and as the results took shape on Saturday, it became clear the SNP would come up short of a majority. Ms. Sturgeon refused to back down from her pledge to hold a referendum and she vowed to press ahead.

“The SNP has won this election emphatically,” she told reporters on Saturday. Pointing to the combined total of 72 SNP and Green MSPs, she added: “It looks as if it’s beyond any doubt that there will be a pro-independence majority in that Scottish Parliament and by any normal standard of democracy that majority should have the commitment it made to the people of Scotland honoured. … The only people who can decide the future of Scotland are the Scottish people – no Westminster politician can or should stand in the way of that.”

Throughout the campaign, Ms. Sturgeon argued that once the pandemic ended, Scots had a right to decide their future, especially given Brexit, which most Scots opposed. Her plan was to hold a referendum by 2023.

However, by law she needs the British government to approve a plebiscite and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has steadfastly refused. He has argued that Scots decided the issue in 2014 when they voted no to sovereignty by 55 per cent. Now that the SNP has failed to win a majority, analysts said Mr. Johnson will be able to argue that Ms. Sturgeon doesn’t have a mandate to call a referendum.

“I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless,” Mr. Johnson told the Daily Telegraph in an interview published on Saturday. “Because I don’t think this is anything like the time to have more constitutional wrangling, to be talking about ripping our country apart, when actually people want to heal our economy and bounce forward together.”

Ms. Sturgeon has ruled out holding a referendum without Westminster’s consent, saying she wants a legitimate result. But she made it clear on Saturday that if the Scottish Parliament approved a motion for a referendum and Mr. Johnson refused to agree, the issue will head to court.

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“The timing of an independence referendum now should be a matter for the Scottish Parliament,” she said. If Mr. Johnson ignores the request, he will “have to take the decision to legally challenge the ability of the Scottish Parliament to deliver on what the people of Scotland voted for. The absurdity and outrageous nature of that – a Westminster government potentially going to court to overturn Scottish democracy – I think is the most powerful argument for Scottish independence.”

Even if a referendum was held, the outcome would be far from certain. Support for sovereignty has increased in several opinion polls, but it is still hovering around 50 per cent. The election results also showed that Scotland is deeply divided over the issue. The popular vote has been split equally between the two parties that support independence – the SNP and Greens – and those that are opposed: the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

“We are well and truly split over the constitutional question,” polling expert Sir John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said in a blog post. “Therefore if we were to have a referendum at any point in the near future, both Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon would be taking the most enormous political gamble.”

One prominent voice for independence – former first minister Alex Salmond – is expected to lose his bid to re-enter Parliament.

Mr. Salmond is a former SNP leader and first minister who served as a mentor for Ms. Sturgeon. The two had a falling out after Mr. Salmond resigned as leader in 2014 and later faced several sexual assault charges. He was acquitted last year but sparked a parliamentary inquiry after alleging Ms. Sturgeon and other government officials conspired to ruin his reputation and “put him in jail.” Ms. Sturgeon rejected the charge and was cleared by a majority of the committee, but the animosity on both sides intensified.

Mr. Salmond recently formed a new pro-sovereignty party called Alba and during the campaign he criticized Ms. Sturgeon for not moving fast enough on independence. However, the party is not expected to win any seats. “I’ve won so many elections I don’t mind losing a few,” Mr. Salmond said Saturday after conceding defeat. “There was a good result available for us and we didn’t quite get there.”

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Mr. Salmond vowed to continue his political comeback and he lashed out once again at Ms. Sturgeon. “Nicola will prevaricate,” he said. “Nicola lost her nerve on independence back in 2017 [by failing to hold a referendum] and has never recovered it, it’s as simple as that. As Alba grows, [and] it will, it will be demonstrated that everything we said is correct.”

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