LONDON (AP) — Scotland’s governing party will elect a new leader on Monday after a bruising five-week contest that exposed deep fractures within the pro-independence movement.
The Scottish National Party is choosing a successor to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who unexpectedly stepped down last month after eight years as leader of the party and of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government.
The SNP’s 72,000 members are choosing among Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and lawmaker Ash Regan.
The winner will be announced on Monday afternoon. The new party leader is due to be confirmed as first minister by Scottish lawmakers on Tuesday.
A formidable leader who led the SNP to a dominant position in Scottish politics, Sturgeon failed in her aim of leading Scotland out of the United Kingdom, and divided the party with a contentious transgender rights law.
The three candidates to succeed her share the goal of independence, but differ in their economic and social visions for Scotland.
Yousaf, 37, is widely seen as a “continuity Sturgeon” candidate who shares the outgoing leader’s liberal social views. Forbes, 32, is an evangelical Christian who has been criticized for saying that her faith would have prevented her from voting in favor of allowing same-sex couples to wed, had she been a lawmaker when Scotland legalized gay marriage in 2014.
Both Forbes and 49-year-old Regan, who is widely considered a long shot, oppose legislation championed by Sturgeon to make it easier for people in Scotland to legally change their gender.
The gender recognition bill has been hailed as a landmark piece of legislation by transgender rights activists, but faced opposition from some SNP members who said it ignored the need to protect single-sex spaces for women, such as domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.
Only Yousaf has promised to push forward with the legislation, which has been passed by the Scottish parliament but blocked by the U.K. government.
The SNP holds 64 of the 129 seats in the Scottish parliament and governs in coalition with the much smaller Greens. The smaller party has warned it may quit the coalition if the SNP elects a leader that doesn’t share its progressive views — meaning a victory by Forbes or Regan could splinter the government.
The new leader will face the challenge of leading the independence movement out of an impasse.
Scottish voters backed remaining in the U.K. in a 2014 referendum that was billed as a once-in-a-generation decision. The SNP wants a new vote, but the central government in London has refused to authorize one, and the U.K. Supreme Court has ruled that Scotland can’t hold one without London’s consent.
Regan wants to sweep those obstacles aside by treating the next election in Scotland as a “trigger point” for independence, effectively daring the U.K. government not to recognize Scotland’s democratic choice to secede.
Forbes and Yousaf are more cautious. Forbes called for more effort to win over voters who back remaining in the U.K., while Yousaf says he wants to build a “settled, sustained” majority for independence. Polls currently suggest Scottish voters are split about evenly on the issue.
The leadership contest has sent the SNP’s poll ratings plunging — to the delight of the Labour Party and the Conservatives, which hope to gain seats in Scotland during the next U.K.-wide election, due by the end of 2024.