THE former SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central has made an appeal for “a respectful” contest to become the party’s candidate for the seat at next year’s Holyrood election.

It comes amid fears an “acrimonious” race could result in damage to the party.

Marco Biagi spoke out after two of the party’s most high-profile figures, Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry, threw their hats into the race last week – more than a month before the official nomination process opens in early April.

He suggested there was some concern among members of the 1200-strong branch about the atmosphere in which the race could be conducted.

“More and more I am hearing from branch members that this election should be a decision over who is the next MSP for Edinburgh Central,” he told The National.

“It shouldn’t be a decision over the next leader of the party, it shouldn’t be a decision about the independence movement.

“Both of these should be decided by the whole party and the independence movement.”

He said: “It’s important we emerge from this process united and able to go forward on all the things we agree. There is a danger, a growing danger, that the process is actually harmful and it is down to the candidates and their supporters to make sure that everything is constructive and positive and that we emerge from this stronger, not weaker.”

READ MORE: Kevin McKenna: Robertson vs Cherry is a failure of SNP leadership

Asked what the dangers were, he added: “Like any internal election, we will have candidates setting out their reasons why people should vote for them. Often, that leads to reasons why people shouldn’t vote for their opponents. If that gets too heated, too pointed, it ends up looking like the party can’t get along.

“No-one wants that. We’ve seen divided parties, outright leadership challenges in the SNP in the past. They do not help and especially do not help if they are acrimonious and people make points about the other candidate that in retrospect might appear ill-advised.”

Biagi was elected as the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central in 2011 and served as local government minister from 2014 to 2016, after which he stood down.

Robertson, the SNP’s former deputy leader and Westminster leader, was the first to declare he was standing, setting out his intention in a newspaper column last week.

Cherry, the party’s MP for Edinburgh South West and its justice and home affairs spokeswoman, announced on Twitter on Saturday that she too would be entering the contest.

Edinburgh Central is a key target for the SNP at the 2021 Holyrood election. It is currently held by former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who took the seat from the SNP in 2016 with a slender majority of just 610 votes.

Speculation had suggested that the successful candidate, assuming they win the seat and a place at Holyrood, could become favourite to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and First Minister.

Writing in the Edinburgh Evening News yesterday, Robertson said: “For the avoidance of doubt, my aim is to become the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central to help and support Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP over the crucial years ahead, where we need to decisively win the independence argument and the recognition and understanding of EU capitals. The only way that we will succeed is with discipline, teamwork and focus on the prize.

“Whenever Nicola Sturgeon decides to move on to new challenges many years down the line, hopefully after securing independence, I am sure there will be a range of younger talents in the Scottish Parliament that I can support for their leadership skills and potential.”

He added: “In the meantime, Edinburgh Central is a marginal seat, and the SNP requires a full-time candidate between selection and the election. Victory should not be taken for granted. It needs to be worked for and I am committed to be the full-time candidate that wins it.

“No former or current Westminster MP should think they can just turn up at Holyrood without any direct experience of the institution and walk into any job apart from serving their constituents and being a good MSP. I certainly don’t.”

The SNP’s nomination process for the selection of candidates opens in early April and continues until mid-May. Branches can then organise hustings for members to hear the pitches from rival contenders.

The ballot then opens on June 5 and runs until July 3 after which the results are announced.