Among the frontrunners for the role is Kate Forbes, the 32-year-old Scottish finance secretary and Gaelic speaker, who is on maternity leave after having her first child, and Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, 37, Scotland’s first cabinet minister from an ethnic minority.
The push for independence suffered a major blow in November when the UK’s top court ruled that the Scottish government could not hold a second referendum without approval from the British parliament.
Sturgeon had said in response that she would turn the next British general election into a de facto referendum to ramp up pressure on Westminster to grant another vote.
She said on Wednesday that she remains of the view that there is now majority support for Scottish independence, but that support “needs to be solidified”.
“To achieve that, we must reach across the divide in Scottish politics and my judgment now is that a new leader would be better able to do this,” she said.
“Someone about whom the mind of almost everyone in the country is not already made up, for better or worse. Someone who is not subject to quite the same polarised opinions, fair or unfair, as I now am.”
There has been increased speculation about Sturgeon’s leadership in recent months after nine members of her party room voted against her government’s plan to reform gender recognition legislation in January – a reform that was blocked by the UK government. She had also come under criticism for failing to say clearly whether she believed Isla Bryson, a convicted rapist who transitioned after committing the crimes, was male or female.
Scotland has since reviewed the management of trans prisoners and stopped transgender people with a history of violence against women being placed in female prisons.
Sturgeon’s popularity among Scottish voters had also fallen, with a poll this week showing 42 per cent wanted her to stand down immediately, but the first minister said her decision was “not a reaction to short-term pressures”.
“There is a much greater intensity, dare I say brutality, to life as a politician than in years gone by. It takes its toll on you and on those around you,” she said.
Sturgeon said she had found public opinions about her had become “barriers” to debate. She said issues that were controversial “end up almost irrationally so”, though she made no specific reference to Scotland’s gender reforms.
She said issues were now seen through the “prism” of what people thought about her and called on politicians to “reset the tone and the tenor of our discourse”.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said he was “glad Nicola Sturgeon has recognised this is the right time to go”.
“Whatever our differences, it is right we recognise that political leadership is always demanding and takes its toll on a person and their family,” he said.
He said Sturgeon had overseen a decade of division and decay in Scotland and had fuelled societal division by refusing to accept the result of the referendum.
Posting on Twitter, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak thanked Sturgeon for her service. “I wish her all the best for her next steps,” he wrote.
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