First Minister Nicola Sturgeon believes there is “every possibility” this will be the final Holyrood election before Scotland achieves independence.
The SNP leader said she would “hope so”, but that her “overriding duty” is to steer the nation through the pandemic, should she remain as first minister next week.
Speaking on the party’s election battlebus in the final stages of the campaign, Ms Sturgeon said it had never been more important to have an experienced politician in charge.
However, she said she had not decided whether this would be the last election she would contest as first minister.
The SNP leader travelled to the north-east to continue campaigning before the polls open on Thursday.
Our latest poll from Survation suggests a second independence referendum would end with a 52-48 victory in favour of staying in the UK.
Asked if she believes this will be the final Scottish Parliament election before independence, Ms Sturgeon said: “I hope so. I think there is every possibility of that, but it’s not up to me, it’s up to a majority of people in Scotland.
“And I believe very strongly that my first duty, my overriding duty, is to get us through the pandemic, and only put the question of independence once we’re through the pandemic.
“So if I’m getting back to work as first minister next week, if that is what the people choose, then that is going to be the focus for me and the government that I’ll appoint.”
‘In the hands of voters’
The case for a second independence referendum could be strengthened if the SNP secures a majority at Holyrood, but the first minister said she does not lose any sleep over the thought of failing to cross that threshold.
“The outcome of any election is in the hands of the voters. Getting a majority is a very hard thing to do in this electoral system and I don’t think anybody should be under any illusions about that,” she said.
“I hope we win the election. I would like to win it with a majority but if we don’t do that, then we will govern, if that is what the outcome of the election allows us to do, in whatever circumstances the electorate chooses to give us.
“But I will be more able, and have more electoral strength, to get on immediately with the task at hand if the SNP is returned with a majority.
“The only thing that has kept me awake at night over the last year, and I don’t say this lightly, has been dealing with Covid and trying to wrestle with the decisions that that has involved.”
Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly highlighted her handling of the pandemic and the important decisions the next first minister would immediately face.
It really does matter who is first minister. It always matters who is first minister, don’t get me wrong, but just given the nature of the times we’re living in right now, it probably matters more than it has ever done before in the lifetime of the parliament.”
“My message to voters in every part of Scotland is that we live in really serious times, and they demand serious and responsible leadership, and experienced leadership,” she said.
“We’ve got some big decisions ahead as we continue to navigate our way through the pandemic.
“Literally, a week today, whoever is first minister has to take the decisions about our next steps out of lockdown, so the stakes couldn’t really be higher and the outcome matters.”
She added: “I know what is in the first minister’s in-tray next week, and I know how serious the decisions that whoever is first minister has got to take.
“And if we don’t get the decisions in the short-term right, then we don’t get to that point as quickly as we might, of looking forward with greater confidence to the future of the country.
“So it really does matter who is first minister. It always matters who is first minister, don’t get me wrong, but just given the nature of the times we’re living in right now, it probably matters more than it has ever done before in the lifetime of the parliament.”
After more than six years in the top job, and enduring a gruelling schedule during the pandemic, questions have been asked about Ms Sturgeon’s longer-term future.
I’m standing to be first minister in this election. If I’m elected as first minister, I’ll do the job that I’m elected to do, and I will make decisions about future elections closer to the time.”
Asked whether she expects this to be the final election campaign she fights as first minister, she said: “I don’t know, is the honest answer to that.
“I think it’s important to take one election at a time. Because to leapfrog the election you’re fighting, to speculate on what might or might not be the situation in a future one, I think, runs the risk of taking voters for granted, which I always try not to do.
“I’m standing to be first minister in this election. If I’m elected as first minister, I’ll do the job that I’m elected to do, and I will make decisions about future elections closer to the time.”