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Voters head to the polls in crucial Holyrood election

© Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Wire/ShutterstockA polling station
A polling station

Scots are heading to the polls to elect the next Scottish Government – though the coronavirus pandemic means it could be more than 48 hours before all the results are counted.

Polling stations opened at 7am on Thursday and will close at 10pm, in an election which could be crucial in determining Scotland’s future within the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, is certain to be returned as First Minister with the largest party in the 129-seat Scottish Parliament.

But she and her party are pushing to try to win an overall majority at Holyrood, in the hope that this could help secure a second independence referendum.

© Andy Buchanan/PA Wire
Nicola Sturgeon campaigning in Dumbarton

Throughout the campaign Ms Sturgeon has stressed that such a ballot would not take place until the immediate health crisis brought about by the pandemic has passed.

Her opponents, however, in the pro-UK parties insist a referendum would hinder Scotland’s recovery from the virus, arguing it is the recovery which must be the focus of the next Scottish Parliament.

With the SNP hoping to win most of its seats in the constituency section of the ballot, elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice said there are nine “knife-edge constituencies” which will be key in this.

These are seats held by the Tories or Labour, but where Ms Sturgeon’s party would need a swing of five points or less to claim them.

The SNP, like all parties fighting in the election, has also been seeking to maximise its votes in the regional list ballot.

But as it won just four of its 63 MSPs on the list last time round, it is more likely that these votes will be crucial in determining the other big question in this Holyrood election campaign – who will come second.

© Paul Campbell
Anas Sarwar visits Inverness on the campaign trail

Scottish Labour, under new leader Anas Sarwar, is hoping it can make gains and start to reverse the decline in fortunes the party has suffered in more recent years.

But the Scottish Conservatives, which became the second largest party in the Parliament at the 2016 election, will be hoping leader Douglas Ross can repeat the success that Ruth Davidson, who is quitting Holyrood for the House of Lords, had five years ago when the party won a record 31 seats.

The other parties at Holyrood are also hoping to make gains, with polls indicating the Scottish Greens could have their best ever result this time round.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats believe that they can also win more seats.

© PA
Alba Party leader Alex Salmond arrives to cast his vote in Strichen, Aberdeenshire

And just as coronavirus has impacted the election campaign, it will also affect the time it takes for all the votes to be counted.

The need for social distancing, with fewer staff able to physically count the ballot papers, means there will be no overnight counts.

Votes will instead start being counted at 9am on Friday, with some of the constituency seats declared later on the same day.

The results of the remaining constituencies, along with the results of the eight regional list areas, will be declared on Saturday.