Trinidad and Tobago is a unitary republic with a non-executive president as head of state. The president is elected for a five year term by an electoral college of both houses of parliament, and is permitted to serve a maximum of two terms. He or she is required to appoint as prime minister the leader of the party with the support of the largest number of members in the House of Representatives, usually the leader of the party with most seats. The prime minister leads the executive and selects the cabinet which is responsible for parliament.
The bicameral parliament consists of the senate, with 31 seats, and the House of Representatives, with 41 seats. The members of the senate are appointed by the president, 16 on the advice of the prime minister, six on advice of the leader of the opposition and nine independents to represent other sectors of civil society. They serve for a maximum of five years. Members of the House of Representatives are elected by direct popular vote for five-year terms.
Tobago has a regional House of Assembly, set up in 1980, with local powers over finances and other delegated responsibilities.
The justice system is based on English Common Law. The Supreme Court of Judicature comprises the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal and has establishments in Port of Spain, San Fernando and Tobago. The Court of Appeal is presided over by the chief justice and hears appeals from the High Court and magistrates’ courts. In some circumstances appeals may be made to the Privy Council in the UK.
The courts of summary jurisdiction and petty civil courts are presided over by magistrates. The courts of summary jurisdiction deal with criminal cases, and the petty civil courts with the less serious civil cases.
The chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president, consulting the prime minister and leader of the opposition in respect of the chief justice, and the Judicial and Legal Service Commission, in respect of the other judges.
Trinidad and Tobago are unique among Caribbean islands in that only 10,000 years ago they were part of the South American mainland.
Claimed for the Spanish crown by Christopher Columbus in 1498, the islands came under British control in the early 19th century. Until 1888, Trinidad and Tobago were separate territories, but in that year the two islands were amalgamated and the laws of Trinidad were extended to the smaller island. The country became independent in August 1962.
The People’s National Movement (PNM), led by Dr Eric Williams, had a long run of
electoral successes. The PNM was ousted in 1986 by a coalition of opposition parties, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR). However, the coalition was troubled, and soon the United Labour Front (led by Basdeo Panday, Robinson’s deputy) quit the alliance to form the United National Congress (UNC). The PNM, under Patrick Manning, returned to power after an easy electoral victory in December 1991. It then lost its substantial majority in 1995 to the UMC, which remained in power until 2001.
Following a threatened vote of no confidence, in 2010, against Manning who had been prime minister again since 2001, parliament was dissolved. In the general election in May a new five-party coalition, the People’s Partnership, led by UNC leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and including the Congress of the People, won 29 of the 41 seats in the lower house, soundly beating the incumbent PNM. Perad-Bissessar became Trinidad and Tobago’s first female prime minister.