Scottish pro-independence leader set to retain power

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Scotland's pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond is tipped to strengthen his position in elections Thursday, on the same day as Britain votes in a referendum on whether to change the voting system.

Around four million voters are expected to cast their ballots to elect 129 lawmakers to Scotland's devolved parliament in Edinburgh, with final campaigning underway on Wednesday.

Until two months ago, Salmond and his centre-left Scottish National Party (SNP) appeared likely to be ejected from power by the resurgent Labour party, which has traditionally dominated politics in Scotland.

But the last few weeks has seen a poll turnaround for Salmond and he is now expected to remain first minister at the head of a minority administration.

A poll on the eve of the vote, commissioned by Scottish television, showed the SNP dramatically increasing their number of seats to 61 from the current 47, within touching distance of a full majority.

The survey, by pollster TNS, also showed Labour slumping to 33 seats from 46.

Such a strong result for the SNP would mean the party could legislate to hold a referendum on independence with the support of smaller parties, moving them closer to their aim of breaking away from Britain.

Salmond and Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray criss-crossed the country on Wednesday.

"Across the country the SNP is working right up to the wire to win both votes for a re-elected SNP government and a five-year council tax freeze," said Salmond, highlighting one of his party's flagship policies.

Salmond has headed a minority administration since 2007 when the SNP took power for the first time in Scotland, ousting Labour who had been in office in a coalition government since the parliament opened in 1999.

With the arrival of a coalition in London last year of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives -- an unpopular party in Scotland -- Labour had counted on winning back power and the polls pointed that way for many months.

Commentators say the SNP's change in fortunes is unlikely to be because of an upsurge in support for Scottish independence, which surveys show does not have overwhelming public backing.

Instead they say it is down to the SNP's perceived ability to stand up for Scotland against deep spending cuts introduced by the coalition in London, plus a lacklustre campaign by Labour.

The Scottish parliament enjoys considerable powers and decides on matters such as education, health, the environment and justice. Key areas including foreign affairs and defence are still controlled by Westminster.

In Nothern Ireland, voters also go to the polls on Thursday to elect members for the British province's devolved assembly against a backdrop of a surge in violence by dissident republicans seeking to destabilise the peace process.

The major parties that share power, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and republican party Sinn Finn, are expected to consolidate their positions after successfully steering the administration through its first full term.

© 2011 AFP

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