SCOTLAND will today vote in the most important Holyrood election yet with polls too close to call on whether the SNP can win an overall majority.

If Nicola Sturgeon’s party repeats the improbable feat of 2011, it would give the First Minister the strongest basis on which to demand Indyref2, setting the scene for another five years dominated by the constitution.

The SNP remains certain to win a fourth consecutive term, extending its time in office to a remarkable 19 years by the end of the next Parliament.

READ MORE: Where is my polling station? Questions answered as Scots get ready to go to the polls

The Scottish Conservatives are also forecast to continue as the main opposition, despite Scottish Labour’s new leader, Anas Sarwar, striking a chord with the electorate. However, the country’s leading pollster, Professor Sir John Curtice of Strathclyde University, yesterday put the chance of an overall SNP majority at 50/50.

Averaging the final five polls of the campaign suggested the SNP would win 64 of the 129 seats at Holyrood, one short of an outright majority, the threshold it passed 10 years ago to trigger the referendum of 2014.

Ms Sturgeon has said she wants to hold Indyref2 before 2024, Covid permitting, with independence itself in 2026, and that a simple majority of pro-independence MSPs would constitute a mandate to hold it.

However, Boris Johnson, who yesterday said “now is not the time” for Indyref2, has said the No vote of 2014 should last a generation, to the 2050s.

Her opponents at Holyrood have also demanded she put the economic recovery from the pandemic ahead of another referendum. A final Ipsos Mori poll for STV yesterday put the SNP on course to win 68 seats, but up to one-fifth of likely voters also said they could yet change their minds.

Emily Gray, managing director of Ipsos Mori Scotland, said: “Whether there will be an SNP majority or not hangs in the balance.

“The election result may come down to how the parties perform in a small number of key marginal seats, as well as the regional vote, which is likely to prove particularly important in determining which party is in second place.

“With a relatively high percentage of voters still saying they’ve not definitely decided, all the parties still have something to play for.”

Professor Curtice also highlighted the importance of nine marginal seats currently held by the opposition parties, where the SNP need to make gains for a majority. Although the Unionist leads are small, tactical voting is already well-established in the seats, meaning the SNP will find them tougher to take on the ground than on paper.

A YouGov poll for The Times also put support for independence down, at 47 per cent among decided voters, suggesting there may be a hardening of the anti-SNP vote. As all the parties embarked on a last frantic bout of campaigning, the most intense battle was among Unionists for regional list votes, as the SNP is so strong in constituencies.

In her final message to voters, Ms Sturgeon stressed her experience through the pandemic.

READ MORE: What is Scotland’s voting system and how does it differ from UK elections

She said: “Today’s election is the most important in the history of the Scottish Parliament. “After a year of unprecedented challenge for all, the country needs experienced leadership to take Scotland through the pandemic – only the SNP are offering a serious programme for government to keep Scotland safe and into a recovery.

“Polls show that, when it comes to the balance of the new Parliament, the result is on a knife-edge. In a close election, every vote can make the difference.

“If I am re-elected First Minister, I guarantee I’ll be back at my desk straight away tackling the pandemic.

“We will get to work on our plans to help the NHS remobilise and agree a pay rise for NHS staff, expand free childcare and free school meals, help our young people into jobs and opportunities and much more within just 100 days.

“And when the Covid crisis has passed, we will give the people of Scotland the opportunity to decide if they want the recovery to be in the hands of the likes of Boris Johnson and the austerity-driven Tories, or to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands with independence. I’m asking people to give both votes to the SNP today to help elect an experienced government with the serious plan to lead Scotland through the pandemic and into a brighter future.”

The Scottish Conservatives warned an SNP majority and a second independence referendum would “wreck” the economic recovery as they highlighted an endorsement from former Labour minister Tom Harris.

The former MP for Glasgow South, who also voted Tory at the 2019 General Election because of Jeremy Corbyn, said he had cast his postal ballot for the Tories with “no joy in my heart”, while backing Labour in Glasgow Cathcart.

READ MORE: PICTURES: Party leaders arrive at polling stations to cast their vote

The Herald:

As the fight for list votes among Unionist parties peaked, the Scottish Tories again turned to former leader Ruth Davidson to spearhead their message.

She said only pro-UK voters giving their Holyrood list vote to the Tories would “stop an SNP majority hellbent on independence wrecking Scotland’s recovery” with indyref2.

The Tories said today was a choice between “referendum or recovery” and by extension, “SNP majority or peach vote Tory”, a reference to the colour of the list ballot paper.

Ms Davidson said: “If we unite and bring back the Better Together spirit for one day only, we won’t have to go through the division and uncertainty of another referendum. We’ll stop the SNP again, just like we did by coming together in 2016.

“If the pro-UK vote sticks together, we can stop that majority. This election is on a knife-edge and the future of our country is on the line.”

Campaigning with Mr Sarwar, Gordon Brown said inequality in Scotland would “last until doomsday” under the SNP while it obsessed about independence.

The former prime minister said Scottish Labour wanted to end child poverty, while the SNP “wants to end the United Kingdom”.

He said that if the SNP couldn’t solve problems in Scotland over the past 14 years in power, it would never solve them and should stand aside for the Labour Party.

Speaking at a drive-in rally of supporters in Glasgow, Mr Brown said: “Every indicator that should be going up is going down and every indicator that should be going down is going up. Poverty is not just a scandal – for children it is a crime.”

Addressing the crowd after Mr Brown’s speech, Mr Sarwar said his party was looking to build a “credible alternative” to the SNP, saying: “I will be First Minister of this country with your support. We aren’t building the opposition to Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, we’re building the credible alternative to Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

“That’s why I say directly to people across Scotland – if you agree with me, if you like what I’m saying, if you want to build that credible alternative, you have to vote Labour in this election campaign.”

In the 2016 Scottish election, the SNP won 63 seats, the Scottish Tories 31, Scottish Labour 24, the Scottish Greens six and the Scottish Liberal Democrats five.

New restrictions introduced this year because of Covid mean the traditional overnight count has been abandoned, with counting taking place tomorrow and Saturday.

Just over one-third of the results will be known on Friday, when 47 of the 73 constituencies are due to be declared, with the remaining seats and all 56 regional list MSPs due to be declared on Saturday.

The list results can only be calculated in each of the eight electoral regions after the constituencies in that particular region have been declared.

All the parties say turnout will be a key factor, with a high turnout seen to favour the SNP. Turnout at in 2016 was just 56 per cent, and there are fears the low-key campaign forced on parties by Covid could depress it below 50%.

The pandemic also means a slower experience at polling stations, with voters expected to wear a facemask, sanitise their hands, and use one-way systems.

People are also being asked to bring their own pen if they can. The Scottish Government had hoped postal registration would double to 40%, but it is only 25%.

South of the Border, Super Thursday also sees elections for the Welsh Senedd, the London Assembly, 143 councils, 13 mayors, including London, and 39 police and crime commissioners.

Today also brings Sir Keir Starmer’s first by-election test as UK Labour leader in Hartlepool.

The party is defending a majority of 3,595 in a seat it has held since its creation in 1974, but recent polls suggest the Tories will win it in a rare gain for a governing party. Labour only held the seat in the 2019 election thanks to the Brexit Party splitting the Tory vote, but its loss would still be a blow to Sir Keir.

In his final message to voters, the Labour leader said: “This is a changed Labour Party. Under new leadership, we are putting working people and their communities first.”

Downplaying expectations, Mr Johnson said it would be a “very tough fight” to win Hartlepool, but the Tories privately expect to win it in a “hat trick” alongside the mayors of Teesside and the West Midlands.