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Is Trinidad and Tobago ready for a liberal political party?

Screenshot of Progressive Party leader Nikoli Edwards, taken from a YouTube video “Why the Progressive Party Was Started”, uploaded by Let's Talk About iTT.

A new political party will officially run in Trinidad and Tobago's next general elections, scheduled to take place in 2020. The Progressive Party, which takes a reformist approach to the country's problems, is a younger, more liberal contender for the 41 seats in the country's House of Representatives — but with a two-party system and a nation entrenched in identity politics, there are no guarantees that the group will find its place in local politics.

The two main political forces in the twin-island nation are the incumbent, the People's National Movement (PNM), which has a strong Afro-Trinbagonian support base, and the United National Congress (UNC) — the opposition —  which performs well in constituencies with predominantly East Indian residents, the country's two largest demographic groups.

Both parties operate against a backdrop of public mistrust. Transparency International's 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index gave Trinidad and Tobago a score of 41, ranking the country at Number 78 out of 180 — one notch lower than its 2017 position.

Such a perception is not unwarranted. Citizens have accused both parties of rampant corruption and criticised both for a lack of efficient leadership. This, combined with the rise in crime and slow economic movement, has made members of the public crave an alternative political solution.

The Progressive Party, which officially launched on June 16, 2019, says it offers the public something new.  In a radio interview on Power 102.1 FM, interim party leader, Nikoli Edwards, was asked how he thought his party would do against the PNM and the UNC. He said that the 2020 election will be “a defining moment” for the country:

Are we going to continue to do the same things over and over and expect a different result or are we willing to try something different?

Edwards, a former independent senator and a well-known personality on the young political scene, has said that the party’s goals include prison reform, the legalization of marijuana and abortion, protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and investing in the renewable energy sector.

The local prison system has battled its share of corruption allegations, marijuana use is still against the law — even though the current PNM administration has promised to decriminalise cannabis for personal consumption — and abortions are also illegal except in very specific cases.

When it comes to religious views, the country is very conservative, so the influence of these groups increases the challenge of creating a safe culture for LGBTQ+ people. Economically, resource-rich Trinidad and Tobago still heavily relies on its oil and natural gas; attempts at economic diversification have not been slower than expected.

Edwards has stated in many of his interviews that this push to create the party came from not seeing his values reflected in the modus operandi of the two current political powerhouses. His party has no current or former members of parliament; instead, it's youth-centered, filled with “new and fresh faces who want to build this country”.

A lack of experience is one problem the party may face. Another is how they will — or will not — break the two-party system.  For years, the PNM and UNC have interchangeably won the majority of seats in parliament, but with the public tired of the same political strategies and accusations of corruption against elected representatives, the 2020 election provides an opportunity for new political parties to emerge — and possibly even win seats — but it won't be an easy fight.

The Progressives seem realistic about their chances in the next election, given the limited lead time and the strong loyalty the two main parties enjoy. They maintain, however, that the need for a drastic change in the country outweighs their fear of trying:

If Trinidad and Tobago is to be a country that prospers, there must be an active attempt by the population to shape the new wave of politicians rather than dismissing anyone who offers themselves for national service. While skepticism is understood in these times, […] dissuading persons with genuine interests in national development from politics will not do any good. The work has started and the idea of a two-party system with an infinite expiration date will be challenged because it must be for all our sakes!

But how will the party's liberal views sit with a religious, conservative country? In Trinidad and Tobago's multi-religious society, different religious organisations often unite against issues like abortion and gay rights.

Despite this, Trinidad and Tobago's high court declared a landmark ruling in favour of LGBTQ+ rights, declaring that sections of its Sexual Offences Act related to anal sex were unconstitutional. Still, there are conservatives — especially among older voters — opposed to such issues, which potentially shrinks the voting pool for the new party. For other segments of the population, though, a party with such open views is long-awaited:

It is difficult to predict at the moment how the Progressive Party will fare at the 2020 polls. While many feel that political change is urgently needed, only time will tell if this young, liberal party is the one to set that change in motion.

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