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Rise of Scottish National Party is transforming Britain's elections

Scottish National Party surges under leader Nicola Sturgeon and is expected to make huge gains in Parliament

When Britain’s national elections are held Thursday, there's a solid chance John Alexander will opt for the Scottish National Party, the group that led September’s failed separatist campaign, even though he favors unity.

Like many voters here, Alexander, an energy-industry employee from Glasgow, says he has not been impressed with Britain’s major political parties.

“Both Labor and the [Conservatives] really squandered opportunities in Scotland after the vote,” said Alexander, 54, who was at an Edinburgh park with his wife and teenage son on a trip this week. “The SNP has become a very viable alternative.”

To the surprise of many analysts over the past few months, voters have fled Labor and flocked to the SNP. Thought doomed not long ago, the SNP — fiscally liberal but fiercely nationalist — has surged under new leader Nicola Sturgeon. It is now expected to octuple its number of seats in the House of Commons, from six to more than 50.

The group’s rise has transformed the British election. Neither David Cameron’s Conservative Party nor Ed Miliband’s Labor Party are forecast to garner much more than one-third of the 650 seats Thursday, meaning leaders will need to form a coalition to run the country. That leaves Sturgeon as an unlikely kingmaker--and puts the nation’s future in the hands of voters often considered an afterthought in British politics.

“I don't believe anyone thought this is the position we'd be in,” said Michael Keating, a political science professor at the University of Aberdeen. Scotland's Labor Party, he said, usually rebounds in national elections, which would have taken the kingmaking role away from the upstart SNP.

This British election is considered among the most important in decades. At stake are austerity policies, healthcare funding and other domestic issues. But there also are more global matters at hand, including Britain's relationship with the United States and the European Union. Cameron, for instance, has said he will push for a referendum on EU membership if reelected, even over the objections of coalition partners. (Labor wants Britain to remain in the EU.)

The drama will almost certainly not end when polls close. A so-called hung Parliament, the most likely occurrence, would leave both Laborites and Tories scrambling to court smaller parties for a coalition. And that's where the SNP comes in.

Sturgeon has said she would not join the Tories but would work with Labor. But for his part, Miliband, not wanting to alienate some English voting blocs, has made campaign pledges that Labor won't negotiate a formal coalition with the SNP. A reversal could spark a backlash and, even if he pulled it off, could cause legislative logjams down the road on education, welfare and other issues on which Scottish and English voters sometimes split.

Miliband could try to forge a coalition without the Scottish nationalists--a difficult maneuver that, even if successful, could drive Scotland further down the road to independence.

The Tories, meanwhile, have benefited from the unexpected rise of the SNP, which has become a wedge issue of sorts. In appearances and stump speeches, Cameron and other Tory leaders have made the case to prospective Labor voters that a victory for that party would put Scottish separatists into power.

That has not sat well with many Scots, already displeased with what they say is the government's failure to deliver on post-referendum autonomy promises. Even for many of those who voted no, the referendum seems to have awakened a national spirit and motivated a desire for a more homegrown flavor of representation. (There are 59 available Parliament seats for Scotland, and it’s conceivable the SNP will nab nearly all of them, including the 41 currently held by Labor.)

Sturgeon has capitalized on voter discontent with articulate and direct responses that both push more liberal economic policies and play on a sense that the SNP is the only party that cares for Scottish citizens.

Her emergence has stoked passions throughout Britain. A number of newspapers and magazines have been sounding alarm bells over the SNP's rise. The Economist wrote last week that the party “spells grave danger for the United Kingdom.”

And a rally Monday in Glasgow with the Scottish Labor leader, Jim Murphy and pro-Labor comedian Eddie Izzard was cut short when a few nationalist hecklers interrupted the proceedings. SNP leaders condemned the action and suspended two staffers.

The battle has also played out online, where competing movements have claimed the mantle of Scotland's future.

Wings Over Scotland, which seeks the country’s independence, has been countered by SNP Out, a unionist group that has used social-media hash tags and urged so-called "tactical voting" to turn back the party.

That has left a lot of voters feeling trapped in the crossfire. The manager of a restaurant in the New Town section of Edinburgh who identified himself as Dave encapsulated the feeling of many Scots on Tuesday. "There’s so much noise. I don’t really like any politician, and I don’t consider myself a supporter of the SNP. But I think it’s good we will be getting a lot more representation," he said.

“Of course," he added, "the real fight will happen after the election and all these parties have to figure everything out.”

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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