As often happens in the run-up to an electoral year, Junior from Barranquilla has broken the transfer market in Colombian soccer to strengthen itself. The great Caribbean team has repatriated Miguel Ángel Borja, a forward of the national team who had already passed through the club and comes from the Porto Alegre Gremio, this December. Quite a coup of opinion announced, as usual, by Alejandro Char, the former mayor of Barranquilla and today a presidential candidate whom everyone refers to as Alex. The Char house, As his family is known, he dominates business, politics and also soccer in the fourth most populous city in Colombia. It is the largest city on the north coast, a region traditionally associated with patronage and political machines. The uncertain path to the Casa de Nariño, the seat of Government, will put its national projection to the test.
The family patriarch, Fuad Char, is the owner of the Junior. Although Alex is not the president of the team, he announces the brand new signings since his time as mayor, a position he has held for two terms, from 2008 to 2011 and from 2016 to 2019. The Char maintain their own bench in Congress, and their Brother Arturo presided over the Senate for a year until last July. They have also maintained quotas in the cabinets of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) and Iván Duque.
A saucy civil engineer who usually wears threadbare caps, a two-day beard, a short-sleeved shirt, jeans and athletic shoes, Alex Char boasts of changing the face of Barranquilla, and was a very popular mayor who finished his second term with an approval rating of over 90 percent. His administration built schools and hospitals, paved popular neighborhoods and channeled streams. But dark clouds are also looming on the horizon. In addition to questioning the hiring methods in Barranquilla, former senator Aida Merlano, a fugitive from Colombian justice and captured in neighboring Venezuela, has linked the Char family with a complex vote-buying scheme. The Supreme Court of Justice is investigating Arturo for this case.
In the presidential pre-campaign in which Alex Char landed, the time for alliances has already arrived, which translate into what is seen as a pulse of coalitions. With the leftist Gustavo Petro as the rival to beat at the head of the Historical Pact, and the Centro Esperanza Coalition also on the scene, the Barranquilla chose to be part of the other great block, the one most heeled to the right. For several months, an alliance had been insinuated between the former mayors of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa; Medellín, Federico Gutiérrez; and Char himself. When their aspiration seemed to wane, the trio heeded the call of former Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry to build what he called a “coalition of experience”, and became the backbone of that alliance, which also includes Dilian Francisca Toro, former governor of Valle del Cauca, and David Barguil, from the Conservative party.
The only candidate of the coalition, renamed Team Colombia, will come out of a consultation that coincides with the legislative elections in March, a kind of primaries that are seen as a close competition between Char, Fico Gutiérrez and Peñalosa. In a study by the firm Invamer that separately measured the scenarios in each of these large blocks, presented this month, Gutiérrez has 26.4% of the preferences, Char 26.1% and Peñalosa 22.7%, far away from others. The former mayor of Barranquilla was surprising when he announced in mid-November that he would choose to collect signatures as an independent despite the fact that his family controls one of the main currents of the Radical Change party. And in an exhibition of the oiled political machinery that he manages, he presented 2.5 million signatures, which he collected in three weeks, when the requirement is 580,000 valid signatures. “Alex Char has a great capacity to compete in the consultation, but in the first round it would be weak,” says analyst Álvaro Forero Tascón, noting that both the parties and the patronage at the presidential level in current Colombia “do not add much and they are very toxic ”.
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The expectation of any member of Team Colombia is to consolidate itself as Petro’s main rival, right now the favorite in all the polls, and collect the rejection of the left-wing leader to reach the second round. In that effort, former president Álvaro Uribe, the right-wing champion, maintains good relations with the Char house. On Christmas Eve he even praised Alex’s management despite the fact that the Democratic Center, the government party founded by the former president, has its own candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who is still asking for a lead in the coalition. “The Alex Char thing in Barranquilla is a transformation that fills Colombia, Barranquilla and the Atlantic with pride, what Petro did in Bogotá is a sign of disaster,” said the former president on a station in the department, which seems like a territory key due to the electoral weight of the Caribbean.
The unusual thing is that Char, despite attending several meetings of Team Colombia, has avoided all debates between candidates, unlike his rivals. Nor has he given interviews. His campaign team notes that he is on an “informational break” for the year-end season. That silence contrasts with his arrival at Tik Tok, where he has interspersed images of the millions of signatures collected with other more humorous and unbuttoned videos, some with dances and choreography. And also with the usual announcements of the signings of Junior via Twitter. According to popular legend, the spirit of Barranquilla voters moves to the rhythm of the team’s performance, but that formula seems to be limited to the Caribbean city. In the rest of the country he needs to publicize a political proposal that for now remains a mystery.
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