The SNP’s national executive committee has agreed a timetable for members to elect a new leader following Nicola Sturgeon’s shock resignation.
Nominations to become Ms Sturgeon‘s successor opened at 11.59pm yesterday evening and will close at midday on Friday 24 February.
Once nominations have closed, the ballot will then open at midday on 13 March and close at midday on 27 March.
The party said its national secretary will make the results of the contest public as soon as the result has been determined and after the candidates have been advised.
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Ms Sturgeon will stay in place until her successor is chosen.
The party planned to hold a meeting on 19 March to discuss the path towards an independence vote, with Ms Sturgeon backing the use of the next general election as a de facto referendum.
But Lorna Finn, the SNP’s national secretary, said: “It would be wrong to have a newly elected leader tied to a key decision on how we deliver democracy in Scotland in the face of continued Westminster intransigence.
“Therefore, the party’s special democracy conference, previously planned for Sunday 19 March, is postponed. SNP Members – the lifeblood of this party and movement – will be updated in due course on details of a rearranged event once the new party leader is in place.”
The decision on the leadership campaign comes after a national executive committee meeting of the party on Thursday.
No individual is yet to have officially thrown their hat into the ring to become Ms Sturgeon’s successor.
But on Thursday, numerous candidates ruled themselves out of the running.
The SNP’s newly elected Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, who replaced Ian Blackford following his resignation in December, told Sky News: “I’ll indeed not be standing.”
“Of course, the next leader of the Scottish National Party needs to have the ability to be first minister – no MP has the ability to be first minister for obvious reasons that we are located in London and not Edinburgh.”
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Deputy first minister John Swinney also will not be putting himself forward to replace Ms Sturgeon.
In a statement posted on Twitter, he said: “For the best part of the last 40 years I have had the privilege of being at the very heart of the formulating the strategy of the SNP.
“From a very poor starting point in the 1980s, I am proud to have played my part in building the SNP into a successful party of government in Scotland with an impressive electoral record.
“The refusal however of the UK Government to respect the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland to have a referendum on independence requires the SNP to consider carefully, and in my view, with a fresh perspective, how to pursue our aims.
“To create the space for that fresh perspective to emerge, I have decided not to be a candidate for leadership in the SNP.”
Mr Swinney briefly served as SNP leader in the early 2000s after Alex Salmond quit as head of the party, but later resigned.
SNP MP Joanna Cherry also confirmed she would not be standing.
The MP said in her column in The National newspaper: “Our next leader must be able to become first minister and so she must come from within the current Holyrood contingent and it should be someone with at least some ministerial experience.
“I stand ready to give my support to the candidate who I believe is best placed to break with the past and to put together a team to deliver the root and branch change needed.”
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Meanwhile, The Daily Record newspaper reported that Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf is expected to enter the race to become the SNP leader.
However Sky News understands Mr Yousaf, 37, who has held a number of ministerial positions in the Scottish Government since 2012, is still debating whether to run.
Mr Yousaf is the first non-white and first Muslim cabinet minister in the Scottish government.
Other potential candidates who could throw their hats into the ring include Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, and Deputy Leader of the SNP Keith Brown.
Ms Sturgeon announced her resignation during a press conference in Edinburgh at her official residence, Bute House, on Wednesday.
The 52-year-old said it had been “the very best job in the world” but that she believed part of “serving well would be to know almost instinctively when the time is right” to step down.
In her resignation speech, Ms Sturgeon said her party has an “array of talent” ready to follow her.