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Newly elected Scottish National Party Leader Humza Yousaf speaks at Murrayfield Stadium, in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 27.Andrew Milligan/The Associated Press

Humza Yousaf, the grandson of a factory worker from Pakistan, is set to become the youngest first minister in Scotland’s history and the third major political figure in Britain who has South Asian heritage.

Mr. Yousaf, 37, narrowly won the race to lead the Scottish National Party on Monday, taking 52 per cent of the vote among party members. The Scottish legislature is widely expected to elect him as first minister on Tuesday.

“I am forever thankful that my grandparents made the trip from the Punjab to Scotland over 60 years ago,” Mr. Yousaf told supporters in Edinburgh on Monday after the results were announced. “As immigrants to this country, who knew barely a word of English, they could not have imagined their grandson would one day be on the cusp of being the next first minister of Scotland.”

Mr. Yousaf is the first Muslim to lead a major political party in Britain. Last fall, Rishi Sunak, whose parents immigrated to Britain from East Africa and India, became the United Kingdom’s first Hindu Prime Minister. Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver from Pakistan, is the first Muslim to serve as Mayor of London.

“It is important to reflect on the election of what will be the first first minister from an ethnic minority background,” said Scottish Labour Party Leader Anas Sarwar, who is also Muslim. “Regardless of your politics, this is a significant moment for Scotland.”

Mr. Yousaf spoke on Monday about how his grandfather, Muhammad Yousaf, worked in the Singer Sewing machine factory in Glasgow while his grandmother, Ali Bhutta, stamped tickets on Glasgow buses. “We should all take pride in the fact that today we have sent a clear message, that your colour of skin, your faith, is not a barrier to leading the country we all call home,” he said.

He replaces Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and first minister, and he inherits a party that is losing favour with Scottish voters.

The SNP has been in power for 16 years but the government is facing a host of challenges including lengthening hospital waiting times, falling standards in education and a backlash over legislation that will make it easier for people as young as 16 to change their gender through self-identification.

Historian Sir Tom Devine, professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, said the SNP should be wary of what happened to the Scottish Labour Party, which dominated Scotland’s politics for decades until its sudden collapse in 2011. Labour “started to take the public for granted,” Sir Tom said. “It was starting to ignore the new priorities of the voter. And that, of course, as always, is very dangerous for a political party.”

He added that the growing opposition to the gender recognition law was an example of how the SNP was losing touch with voters who are more concerned about the soaring cost of living.

Mr. Yousaf, the current Health Secretary, was considered the favourite heading into the leadership race, and he campaigned largely on a pledge to continue Ms. Sturgeon’s policies. However, he faced an unexpectedly stiff challenge from Kate Forbes, the Finance Secretary, who finished with 48 per cent of the votes. During the campaign, Ms. Forbes took aim at Mr. Yousaf’s record in various cabinet posts and warned party members that he did not represent a fundamental change from the “mediocre” government.

Mr. Yousaf will also have to reignite the SNP’s quest for Scottish independence. In 2014, Scots voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain part of the U.K., but Ms. Sturgeon has been pushing for a second referendum. However, opinion polls show that support for sovereignty hasn’t changed much in the past nine years. The Scottish Parliament also needs approval from the U.K. government to hold another vote, and Mr. Sunak has refused to give the required consent.

Mr. Yousaf plans to pursue a tricky balancing act. On Monday he said that he wanted to make the case for independence through good governance before pressing ahead with a referendum proposal, which could take years. But he also promised hard line sovereigntists in the party that he would “kick-start our grassroots, civic-led movement and ensure our drive for independence is in fifth gear.”

James Mitchell, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Edinburgh, doubted whether Mr. Yousaf and the SNP will remain in power beyond the next election, expected in 2026. “It’s a poisoned chalice to take over from Sturgeon,” Dr. Mitchell said. “She’s handed it over at a point when the public are beginning to wake up that there are problems.”