LONDON (AP) — Scotland’s governing party elected Humza Yousaf as its new leader on Monday, making him the first person of color and the first Muslim to lead the country of 5.5 million people.
Yousaf narrowly defeated rival Kate Forbes after a bruising five-week contest that exposed deep fractures within the pro-independence Scottish National Party as it faces an impasse in its quest to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.
The 37-year-old Glasgow-born son of South Asian immigrants is set to be confirmed as first minister during a session of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh on Tuesday.
Yousaf, who currently is Scotland’s health minister, beat two other Scottish lawmakers in a contest to replace First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She unexpectedly stepped down last month after eight years as leader of the party and of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government.
SNP members chose Yousaf over Scottish finance minister Forbes by a margin of 52% to 48%, after third-placed candidate Ash Regan was eliminated in a first vote. Turnout among the 72,000 members was 70%.
Yousaf faces the challenge of uniting the SNP and reenergizing the stalled independence campaign.
“Just as I will lead the SNP in the interests of all party members, not just those who voted for me, so I will lead Scotland in the interests of all our citizens whatever your political allegiance,” he said in an acceptance speech at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield rugby stadium.
Yousaf paid tribute to his late grandparents, who emigrated from the Punjab to Glasgow more than 60 years ago.
“They couldn’t have imagined, in their wildest dreams, that two generations later their grandson would one day be Scotland’s first minister,” he said. “We should all take pride in the fact that today we have sent a clear message: that your color of skin, your faith, is not a barrier to leading the country we all call home.”
Yousaf is widely seen as a “continuity Sturgeon” candidate who shares the outgoing leader’s liberal social views.
A formidable leader who led the SNP to a dominant position in Scottish politics, Sturgeon failed in her aim of taking Scotland out of the U.K. and divided the party with a contentious transgender rights law.
The three candidates to succeed her shared the goal of independence, but differed in their economic and social visions for Scotland.
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 opposed 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.
Yousaf has promised to push forward with the bill, 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 had warned it might quit the coalition if the SNP elected a leader that doesn’t share its progressive views — meaning a victory by Forbes or Regan could have splintered the government.
That split has been avoided, but the pro-independence campaign remains adrift. 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.
Yousaf said he would ask the Conservative government in London for authorization to hold a new referendum. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office said the answer remained no.
Yousaf has also said he wants to build a “settled, sustained” majority for independence. Polls currently suggest Scottish voters are split about evenly on the issue.
“To those in Scotland who don’t yet share the passion I do for independence, I will aim to earn your trust by continuing to govern well,” Yousaf said.
The acrimonious SNP 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, likely next year.
Critics say Yousaf, who served in several posts in Sturgeon’s government, bears some responsibility for Scotland’s long health care waiting times, homelessness problem and high drug death toll.
Independent pollster Mark Diffley said that while the SNP members who elected Yousaf are passionately concerned about independence, the new leader “will now have to pivot really quite sharply towards what public priorities are, which is not the same.”
“It’s more about supporting people through the cost of living crisis, getting economic growth, improving public services,” Diffley said. “That’s where reality will bite, I think, pretty soon.”