Nicola Sturgeon said it was “not impossible” that the SNP could win a majority in the Scottish Parliament election, as the party made gains from its rivals in key seats.
Ms Sturgeon’s party captured the seats of Ayr and Edinburgh Central from the Tories, with former SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson gaining the seat in the capital which had previously been held by the Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson.
The SNP also gained East Lothian from Labour, while Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader who is fighting to retain her Dumbarton seat, said it was “too close to call” there.
However with some constituencies still to be counted on Saturday, as well as the crucial regional list, it is not yet clear if Ms Sturgeon’s party will get the overall majority it is seeking.
The SNP’s success in some constituencies could see it lose seats on the South of Scotland list – where it picked up three MSPs in 2016.
The Tories also managed to hold on to Eastwood, with former leader Jackson Carlaw re-elected there, despite coming under pressure from the SNP, who hold the corresponding seat at Westminster.
Ms Sturgeon said if her party is returned to government, she will be straight back to work, focused on tackling the ongoing coronavirus crisis – with the pandemic having meant there was no traditional overnight counting after Thursday’s Holyrood election.
But she also stressed that “when the time is right”, she should be able to offer Scots “the choice of a better future” in a second independence referendum.
Ms Sturgeon, who comfortably defeated Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar to claim Glasgow Southside, said afterwards: “My focus, if we are re-elected as the government, is to get back to work to steer the country through the crisis and into recovery.
“That remains the case. But once the crisis is over, and if there is a majority in the parliament for an independence referendum, people should have the right to choose our future. Scotland’s future should always be in Scotland’s hands.”
Speaking about the prospect of winning an overall majority, the SNP leader said: “It’s certainly not impossible, but nor is it guaranteed.
“That was always going to be on a knife edge, it comes down to a small number of votes in a small number of seats, so at this midway point it is certainly still there as a possibility, but I have never taken that for granted.
“It is a long shot, to say the least, in a PR system, to win a majority, you effectively have to break the system. I would like to do it, but I have never been complacent about that.”
However she said it was “almost certain” the SNP would “win the election comfortably, and we should not understate the scale of that achievement”.
If returned, it would be the SNP’s fourth term in government at Holyrood, with the party having been in power there since 2007.
Meanwhile Mr Robertson, the new Edinburgh Central MSP, said the message from voters there was that “Scotland’s future should be in Scotland’s hands”.
The former SNP depute leader insisted: “In this most European of capital cities, people have resoundingly rejected the party of Brexit and Boris Johnson.
“The public has rejected all of the parties that want to block an independence referendum.”
As he secured his Perthshire North seat, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the SNP would be the “leading and largest party” in the new Scottish Parliament.
While he said there is a “long way to go” before all the results are known, he stressed it was now “beyond any doubt” that the SNP will form the next government.
He added: “That is an absolutely gigantic feat for the Scottish National Party to have achieved, to be on the brink of a fourth continuous term.”
Elsewhere, former first minister and Alba Party leader Alex Salmond said the measure of his party’s success would be “our existence as a political party”, adding it is “here to stay”.