THE row over membership numbers was calculated to “discredit the SNP”, party President Mike Russell has claimed.

Speaking on The National’s live stream on Thursday afternoon, Russell defended the election process and insisted the first running the contest, Southampton-based Mi-Voice, is independent and the results will be “absolutely unimpeachable”.

He insisted SNP staff would have no access to live data on the number of votes logged so far.

READ MORE: SNP say Tory pensions changes 'will only help the richest in society'

Within hours of Russell’s interview, the SNP confirmed that there are 72,186 party members voting in the leadership contest.

It came after candidate Ash Regan vowed to hold a press conference outside of the Scottish Parliament if the party had not released the figures by 3pm on Thursday.

Both Regan and fellow contender Kate Forbes have called for an independent auditor to oversee the election, and welcomed the publication of the figures.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf had also called for the figures to be released, but warned against indulging in “baseless smears”.

Speaking on The National’s live stream, Russell was asked to respond to criticism he had faced online for describing opposition politicians as “enemies”.

He said: “Well, I would say what I have replied to Rachel Hamilton, the Tory MSP on that, if the cap fits.

“I mean, I think this fitted the vapours that certain journalists have had, for example, is to put it mildly hypocritical.

“I think there has been an organised or disorganised attempt to discredit the SNP. This has nothing to do with publishing figures.”

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon: 'Disappointing' no funding for Acorn Project in Budget

Russell said he supported publishing the figures, but said he had concerns about the motivations behind the row.

He added: “What it’s to do with is constantly denigrating and running down the SNP and what it is trying to achieve.

“I think that is based upon the success of the party. There has been, with social media and other campaigns for years against the SNP because people are thoroughly afraid of it because it has been such a successful electoral machine for example, and therefore I'm not going to take advice on how to express myself from Tories and with the greatest respect some journalists.”

Russell was also asked how he viewed SNP MP Gavin Newlands suggestion that the call for independent auditors to be involved in the election is a “Trumpian” move by the candidates.

The SNP President said that he had chaired hustings that were “constructive and polite” and insisted that the focus of the election should be on policy, not the process.

He added: “It should not be about the internal processes because there’s no need for it to be about the internal processes, those are solid, sound, and robust.

“We've seen too much of this, allegations without substance, statements being made which simply are wrong. I mean, we see them every single day.

“They are simply completely and utterly wrong, they’re not based on any facts.”

It comes as Nicola Sturgeon told reporters at Holyrood that she did not understand the specific concerns, and said she had “100% confidence” in the integrity of the process.