Colombia’s historic presidential election: What you need to know

A worker helps prepare a polling station in Bogotá, Colombia, on June 16. (Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)
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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia will hold a presidential election on Sunday unlike any other in its history.

Voters in Latin America’s third-largest country have demanded change, rejecting a political establishment that has held power here for generations. Regardless of who wins, the new president will herald the start of a potentially transformative era.

But will the historically conservative country select its first leftist president? Or will it take a gamble on a political outsider?

The choice is between two populist candidates: Gustavo Petro, a leftist senator and former guerrilla member competing in his third presidential election, or Rodolfo Hernández, a straight-talking former mayor running on an anti-corruption platform.

Sunday’s vote will be the culmination of the most tense and violent election cycle in more than a decade. Recent polls show Petro and Hernández in a virtual tie, raising concerns that the losing candidate or his supporters could contest the results and incite unrest.

Both candidates have faced assassination threats. Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, appeared in campaign rallies last month behind bulletproof shields. Hernández extended a trip to Florida last week and called off all public campaign events because of safety concerns.

Behind bulletproof shields, Colombian candidates fear for their lives

“This is a breaking point in Colombian politics,” said Sandra Botero, a political scientist at Colombia’s University del Rosario. “I don’t think we’ve had an election that is this close, and where so much is at stake, for decades. Regardless of who wins, we seem to be standing at a critical juncture.”