NICOLA Sturgeon says she expects to lead Scotland into a second referendum and onwards to independence.

On the eve of an election in which the SNP is forecast to increase its Holyrood majority, a confident Sturgeon said it was now odds-on that she would call a referendum as First Minister.

Opposition parties accused her of arrogantly ignoring the 55-45 rejection of independence 19 months ago, and suggested she may be trying to stem an erosion of the SNP's list vote.

READ MORE: Sunday Herald Holyrood leader interviews: Nicola Sturgeon

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Herald, Sturgeon was asked if she expected a second referendum within her premiership. She replied: “Do I think it’s more likely than not? Yes.”

Given she would only hold a referendum if she expected to win, her remark indicates she believes she will succeed where Alex Salmond failed and deliver independence.

It was also a sharp rebuke to David Cameron after it was reported last week that the Prime Minister believes the SNP will back off independence and settle for “Scotland-lite” instead.

The issue is expected to feature prominently in the last TV debate of the election, which the BBC will broadcast tonight.

The SNP manifesto says Holyrood should “have the right” to hold a referendum if there is “clear and sustained evidence” that most Scots want one, or if there is a material change in circumstances compared to 2014, such as the UK leaving the EU against Scotland’s wishes.

However in her interview, Sturgeon goes beyond a theoretical “right” to hold a referendum, and says she is “committed” to holding one if certain conditions are met.

She said: “I am committed to having a referendum when I think there is majority support for that. I would be committed to having a referendum if I thought the circumstances around material change were right.”

The final days of the election campaign have seen independence shoot up the agenda and the SNP taking bolder positions on the issue.

Last October, the party briefed there would not be a second referendum until at least six months of 60 per cent support for Yes in the polls.

However in an STV interview last week, Sturgeon suggested a mere handful of polls showing support “over 50 per cent” might trigger a ballot.

The SNP is already planning a summer initiative on independence, partly to gee up its activists, but also to address problems with the party’s prospectus for leaving the UK.

Sturgeon has previously admitted “uncertainty issues”, such as pensions and currency, put some people off voting Yes, and the party is now trying to reassure No voters.

In her Sunday Herald interview, Sturgeon also rows back from the SNP manifesto position on fracking, which states the unconventional gas technology will be blocked unless there is “no risk” to health or the environment, modifying this to “a substantial risk”.

The First Minister also suggests Kezia Dugdale became Scottish Labour leader too soon.

She said: “Talent is really important in politics, but experience is also really important. She probably would have been better if she’d had a few more years.”

LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “Push Nicola Sturgeon on a second referendum and the mask slips. She wants to spend the next five years plotting a second referendum and not improving our public services. That is the last thing Scotland needs.”

A Labour spokesperson said: “Given that the SNP manifesto doesn't have a mandate for a second referendum this is incredibly arrogant from Nicola Sturgeon. What she should be focused on is stopping the cuts in Scotland, as she promised in the general election.”

A Scottish Conservative spokesman added: "This is arrogance in the extreme from the SNP. They promised to respect the result of the referendum. Now Nicola Sturgeon is ignoring the wishes of the majority in Scotland in order to take us back to yet more division.”

The SNP yesterday said it aimed to reach every voter in Scotland with a final election push that includes 50,000 activists, 153 street stalls, and a digital campaign targeting 1.2m people.

In Stirling before a closing tour of the North East, Sturgeon said: “With five days till polling day it is time for voters to decide who they trust as First Minister.”

READ MORE: Sunday Herald Holyrood leader interviews: Nicola Sturgeon

Dugdale, who is fighting to come second ahead of the Tories, insisted she was in a “really good, buoyant mood”, adding: “I'm not interested in the polls. It's not for the pollsters to decide elections, it’s the people. I'm putting my faith and trust in them.”

The Tories asked No voters to lend the party their vote in order to ensure a strong opposition.

Leader Ruth Davidson said: “You don't have to agree with everything my party says to back me in this campaign. You just have to want the SNP held to account.”