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Chilean President Gabriel Boric faces his biggest political challenge yet

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Chile, the country's young president, Gabriel Boric, is facing a big test. On Sunday, Chileans will decide whether to ratify a new constitution to replace the current one, which was written during the country's military dictatorship. Polls predict voters will reject this new constitution. As NPR's John Otis reports, that would be a blow for President Boric.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Shouting in Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In the streets of Santiago, a boisterous crowd waves Chilean flags and banners that say rechazo - that's Spanish for rejection.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Rechazo. Rechazo.

OTIS: They're urging people to reject Chile's draft constitution, which they claim is a radical left-wing document that would turn the nation upside down. Much of their anger is directed at President Gabriel Boric, who's a big supporter of the new Magna Carta.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: At 36, Boric, a leftist, is Chile's youngest ever president. He sports a beard, tattoos on his arms and never wears a necktie. Boric was sworn in in March amid rising inflation, unemployment and street crime. But rather than taking action, the president has dithered, says Camila Quiroz, an industrial engineer taking part in the march.

CAMILA QUIROZ: Like, come on. You have to do something. You have the power, you know. You have the people. And why you don't do anything? We are living in chaos. We are living in a dangerous place.

OTIS: A survey this week by Chilean polling firm Cadem puts Boric's job approval rating at just 39%.

CLAUDIO FUENTES: It was very expected that you have a reduction of popularity. But what is new in Boric is that this went very quick. And...

OTIS: No honeymoon.

FUENTES: No honeymoon at all.

OTIS: That's Claudio Fuentes, who teaches political science at Diego Portales University in Santiago. He and others describe Boric as something of an accidental president. As an opposition congressman, Boric helped broker a deal that ended violent protests in 2019 that threatened to bring down Chile's right-wing government. To address the protesters' demands for everything from better pensions to free university education, Chile began the long, slow process of writing a new constitution.

GLORIA DE LA FUENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Analyst Gloria de la Fuente says Boric's role in defusing the 2019 crisis helped him leapfrog past more experienced candidates to win the presidency last December. Once in office, Boric botched efforts to pacify indigenous protests in southern Chile. He's struggling with the country's highest inflation rate in nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, his government agenda is largely on hold because it depends on passage of the draft constitution.

RODRIGO ESPINOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "The result," says political analyst Rodrigo Espinoza, "has been government paralysis that has further eroded Boric's popularity."

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: At a rally to drum up support for the new constitution, I meet Bernardita Aninat, who trains teachers in Santiago. She says that problems like inflation are global trends beyond Boric's control.

BERNARDITA ANINAT: I think he's done a good job, but it's hard. And also, it's five months in a sort of a crisis. The world is all turned up and down.

OTIS: In a recent interview on Chilean TV, Boric admitted that he's off to a rough start.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GABRIEL BORIC: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He said, "I think we have to be humble and learn from the mistakes." But things could get even rockier for his administration. Polls show that once-robust support for the draft constitution is waning due to its controversial platforms. Some call for stronger protections for the environment and indigenous groups that could put the brakes on the country's lucrative mining industry. Other articles call for eliminating Chile's Senate and legalizing abortion. Although the polls may be wrong, Fuentes, the university professor, says that Boric is bracing for the draft constitution to be rejected.

If the no vote wins, does that mean disaster for Boric?

FUENTES: I don't think so. I mean, probably, you will see a very quick reaction of him trying to negotiate a new path to have a new constitution.

OTIS: However, starting the constitutional rewrite process all over again, as Boric has suggested, could mean several more years of gridlock for his government. John Otis, NPR News, Santiago, Chile. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.