GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — The independence-minded Scottish National Party won a third consecutive term in government Friday but failed to secure an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament.
In an eye-catching reversal, the Conservative Party secured its best result in the 17-year history of the Scottish Parliament to overtake the Labour Party as the official opposition.
The SNP, which advocates Scotland breaking away from the United Kingdom, won 63 seats, two short of a majority and six fewer than they held in the outgoing parliament.
Matthew Ashton, a politics expert at Nottingham Trent University, said the SNP's inability to gain a majority may be "evidence that their hold on power is beginning to slip."
The Conservatives took 31 to Labour's 24 while the Green Party, which also supports independence, won six seats.
"The Conservatives clearly gained from presenting themselves as the defenders of the Union," said Nicola McEwen of the Centre on Constitutional Change. She described the result as confirmation of the polarization of political debate on either side of the constitutional question.
The SNP, which will have to govern by making deals with smaller parties, is closely identified with the independence movement. It failed to convince voters to cut ties to Britain in a 2014 referendum but easily remains the most popular party in Scotland.
Party leader Nicola Sturgeon claimed the party has an ample mandate to govern and would not seek to form a coalition.
The SNP would continue to advocate independence, Sturgeon said, but analysts said she would be cautious about pushing for another referendum unless she was assured of winning.
"When push comes to shove I'm not convinced Scotland would vote for independence," said Thomas Lundberg of Glasgow University. "Being pushed into a second one before they are ready would be a disaster."
Some experts believe a British vote to leave the European Union in the upcoming June 23 referendum might lead to another independence vote in Scotland.