Colombians head to the polls in presidential election

Colombians head to the polls in presidential election

Colombians are heading to the polls today in a presidential election that could give the conservative South American country its first leftist leader and first black vice-president.

The frontrunner Gustavo Petro, a former M 19 guerrilla fighter and senator, faces several rivals but his main challenger is Federico Guti rrez, former mayor of Medell n Colombia s second city who leads a rightwing coalition with close ties to the incumbent government of President Iv n Duque.

Rodolfo Hern ndez, a business magnate and social media firebrand, has seen a late surge in the polls. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, a run-off election will take place in June.

Petro s campaign has been boosted by support from a generation of young voters politicised during an unprecedented wave of protest last year.

In Colombia we re tired of the same, Rosa Botero, a student, said at Petro's last campaign rally in the city's historic Plaza Bol var last week. Petro s opponents claim that his victory could lead to a nationwide collapse like that ushered in by the late Hugo Ch vez, who has led neighbouring Venezuela to economic and social ruin.

Whoever wins the presidency will have to face a lot of challenges. The country was hit by protests last year against inequality, while violence continues to plague cities and countryside because of dissension by dissident rebels and drug militias. Inflation is rising and the country is struggling to cope with nearly 2 million migrants from neighbouring Venezuela.

In 2016 a historic peace deal was signed with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia Farc. The deal ended half a century of civil war that killed 260,000 people and displaced 7 million, but the government has been accused of slow-walking its implementation.

Petro is a fervent supporter of the deal, while Guti rrez is viewed as a sceptic.

Laura Gil, a political scientist and columnist, said this election is a historic election because it is the first time that the left has a real chance of getting in power. It is a proposal that brings together social movements that were not able to express themselves electorally due to the sword of Damocles that hung over them during the armed conflict. The campaign has been marked by threats of violence against Petro and his running mate, Francia M rquez, who if elected would be one of two black female vice-presidents in Latin America, along with Epsy Campbell Barr of Costa Rica. Petro and M Rquez have spoken at rallies from behind bulletproof shields.

The National Liberation Army ELN, another leftist rebel group, announced a ceasefire in the run-up to Sunday's vote, but other factions and criminal groups have targeted political candidates and polling stations in recent years.

The election will be close at 4 pm local time, with results expected a few hours later, but Petro and some of his allies have warned that the election could be susceptible to fraud, worrying observers in a country that prides itself on its relative political stability.