Scotland decides: Voting underway in referendum on independence; record turnout expected

Campaigners wave Scottish Saltires at a 'Yes' campaign rally in Glasgow, Scotland on Sept 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Campaigners wave Scottish Saltires at a 'Yes' campaign rally in Glasgow, Scotland on Sept 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

EDINBURGH (AFP) - Voters headed to polling stations on Thursday in Scotland's historic referendum on independence, with record numbers expected to cast their vote on whether to stay or leave the United Kingdom.

Voting will continue until 2100 GMT (5am on Friday, Singapore time) and the results are likely to emerge in the early hours of Friday local time (Friday morning, Singapore time).

Scottish residents are being asked one question on the ballot paper: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" and they will mark either "Yes" or "No".

A record turnout of around 80 per cent is expected after an electrifying campaign caused 97 per cent of people eligible to vote to register - almost 4.3 million people.

At a polling station in Edinburgh West, one of 2,600 places where votes will be cast across the country, people arrived almost as soon as the booths opened.

Presiding officer Peter Macvean said: "It's a very special day, once in a lifetime."

Mother-of-two Charlotte Farish, 34, said: "It's an important day. This is a decision which will last forever, which will impact my children."

'Yes' vote for grandson

From the windows of people's homes to stands on street corners, lapel badges and even cupcakes, support for the "Yes" campaign has been more visible than for "No" in many parts of Scotland.

As "Yes" supporters gathered in Glasgow's main square on Wednesday, 62-year-old Frank Evans said: "I've been ruled by Westminster governments for too long. This is a chance to rule ourselves, for my daughter and my grandson."

But the "No" camp insists that many voters opposed to independence have simply not made their voices heard yet.

"The silent majority will be silent no more. We will not have this," said Britain's former prime minister Gordon Brown, who is Scottish, in a passionate appeal to a Glasgow rally on the final day of campaigning.

In the oil city of Aberdeen, "No" campaigner Andy Harrold admitted their side had been slow to get started and had not spent money on "razzmatazz".

"I'm here to save my country," he said ahead of the vote. "There have been too many indecisive statements from Salmond, he hasn't come out with anything concrete about what's happening," he said, referring to Scottish First Minister and opposition leader Alex Salmond.

The final opinion polls put the "No" camp slightly ahead, but there remain many undecided voters whose decision will be crucial.

"I'm going to be looking at what side makes the better argument, whether I can believe one side," said voter Steven Andrew in Scotland's capital, Edinburgh.

'Status quo is gone'

Debate in the campaign has focussed on the economy, including what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether its North Sea oil wealth would help make it a richer nation.

Questions over whether an independent Scotland could be a member of the European Union and how long this would take to negotiate have also surfaced repeatedly.

Scotland's Parliament, opened in 1999, holds some powers devolved from Westminster to set policy in certain areas of domestic policy, such as health and education.

Even if there is a "No" vote, Scotland is set to be handed new authority over areas like tax and welfare, which Brown says could amount to effective home rule.

But a detailed timetable for this only emerged late in the campaign after Brown effectively stepped in to take control of the "No" camp after it looked like it might lose.

"The status quo is gone," Prime Minister David Cameron said in his final campaign speech on Monday in Scotland. "There is no going back to the way things were. A vote for 'No' means real change."

Britain's leader, deeply unpopular in Scotland, has faced criticism for not taking the prospect of Scottish independence seriously enough sooner.

He is likely to face pressure from his Conservative party to step down if there is a "Yes" and would come out badly bruised even in case of a narrow "No" victory.

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