Scottish elections 2021: The winner is clear but much remains to be decided by Thursday's vote – Ian Swanson

No-one seriously doubts that the election on Thursday will return the SNP to power at Holyrood, endorsing Nicola Sturgeon to carry on as First Minister for another five years, the party's fourth term as Scotland's government.

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But there is still much that is uncertain about the results which will gradually emerge on Friday and Saturday as counts take place across the country under strict Covid conditions.

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The biggest question politicians and pundits will focus on is whether the SNP can achieve an overall majority of seats in the parliament. The Holyrood voting system was designed to make this very difficult but since the Nationalists managed it in 2011 it has now become a benchmark against which its electoral performance is measured.

It therefore has a symbolic importance and would supposedly make it harder for Boris Johnson to dismiss a request for a Section 30 order to allow a second independence referendum. One weekend poll showed the SNP winning with a majority of seven but others suggest it will fall short.

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But it can be argued a combined SNP-Green pro-independence majority – almost certain to be secured – is just as good a mandate.

The other key issue is who comes second. Last time, under Ruth Davidson, the Tories supplanted Labour as the main opposition at Hoyrood, but the party's new boss Douglas Ross has not had a good election and his popularity ratings are poor.

A sign outside a polling station at St James Church in Edinburgh, during the 2017 UK general election (Picture: Lesley Martin/AFP via Getty Images)

Labour's new leader Anas Sarwar on the other hand, has had a good election and his popularity ratings are high. But unfortunately for Labour most polls do not show that popularity translating into votes for Labour. The party has been ahead of the Tories in some recent polls on the constituency vote, but not the crucial list vote, where it needs to pick up most of its seats.

Second place sounds like a poor consolation prize for a party which once dominated Scottish politics. But 14 years after losing power and five years after being pushed into third place, becoming the main opposition again would be a huge boost to Labour's comeback efforts.

Failure to make such an advance, however, is unlikely to damage Mr Sarwar. He only took over the helm a few weeks ago and has made clear it is going to be a long haul to restore Labour's fortunes – he is just hoping to get off to a good start.

And there’s also the question of whether Alex Salmond's Alba party wins any seats. The former First Minister's decision to launch a new party was seen as a seismic event which changed the dynamics of the election. But it is difficult to tell what impact it has really had. Polls are split, some suggesting Alba could win half a dozen seats, others none at all.

Nicola Sturgeon will be endorsed as First Minister, but other questions about the election outcome remain unanswered (Picture: John Devlin)

Each of the five elections to the Scottish parliament so far has produced a first – the first devolved parliament; the first "rainbow" parliament; the first minority SNP government; the first majority SNP government; and the first parliament with Tories as the main opposition.

Some polls suggest the result this time will be remarkably similar to last time. But if nothing else, this is the first election to be held under Covid restrictions with normal campaigning limited. Everyone will be trusting it is also the last.

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