[PERTH] Scotland's ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) on Friday crowned a new leader who vowed to continue the fight for independence, despite defeat in September's referendum.
First Minister Alex Salmond quit after the September ballot, in which 55 per cent of voters said "No" to leaving the United Kingdom, and has now been replaced by his deputy Nicola Sturgeon.
Delegates rubber-stamped Ms Sturgeon's election as SNP leader at the party's annual conference in Perth - she was the only candidate - paving the way for her appointment as Scotland's first female first minister next week.
"I think we will become an independent country," the 44-year-old former lawyer told Sky News after her appointment.
"I think that's the direction of travel but it will only happen when the people of Scotland choose it," she said.
Asked if that would be under her leadership, she replied: "I certainly hope so."
The SNP is increasingly being seen as a possible "kingmaker" after Britain's general election in May if neither of the two main parties, the Conservatives or Labour, win a majority.
Ms Sturgeon said the SNP would not "prop up" a Conservative government but could support a Labour government "if they have to depend on SNP votes" without forming a formal coalition.
Mr Salmond led the SNP for nearly 20 years and spent seven as first minister, transforming the nationalist party from a marginal organisation to a major political force.
In his outgoing speech to the conference, Mr Salmond repeated his belief that Scotland can still become an independent nation despite the referendum vote.
"September 18, 2014 will be seen as the day that Scotland started to take control of our own destiny," he said.
In the vote, "1.6 million women and men living and working in Scotland chose hope over fear, a much higher number than our opponents ever thought possible when we started this campaign", he said.
The party was "invigorated as never before", he continued.
The SNP's membership has swelled since the referendum from 25,000 to more than 85,000, and Mr Salmond said he hoped it could reach 100,000 before the British general election.
John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde, said the referendum had "empowered" the SNP.
"They understood people wanted Scotland to be more powerful," he said.
Stuart Waiton, a sociology lecturer at the University of Abertay Dundee, said the SNP was now "stronger" and the once-dominant Labour party was "in disarray".
"The expectation is that Labour will collapse" in May's British election, he said.
Although Scotland remains part of the UK, the closeness of the referendum campaign prompted the British government to promise new powers for the devolved government in Edinburgh.
Proposals are set to be outlined by the end of the month and laid into legislation by early next year.
"If the Westminster gang reneges on that promise, they will discover that hell hath no fury like a nation scorned," Mr Salmond said.
Welcoming her appointment, Ms Sturgeon said it was a "good time for our party and it's a good time for our country".
The conference also saw Stewart Hosie elected as the party's new deputy leader.
He is a lawmaker in the British parliament in London but not the Scottish parliament, so will not be able to take over Ms Sturgeon's job as deputy first minister in Edinburgh.