Trinidad and Tobago: Government
Principal Government Officials
Chief of State: President Anthony Carmona
Head of Government: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar
Trinidad and Tobago is a unitary state, with a parliamentary democracy modeled after that of Great Britain. Although completely independent, Trinidad and Tobago acknowledged the British monarch as the figurehead chief of state from 1962 until 1976. In 1976 the country adopted a republican Constitution, replacing Queen Elizabeth with a president elected by Parliament. The general direction and control of the government rests with the cabinet, led by a prime minister and answerable to the bicameral Parliament.
The members of the House of Representatives are elected to terms of at least 5 years. Elections may be called earlier by the president at the request of the prime minister or after a vote of no confidence in the House of Representatives. Parliamentary elections took place on November 5, 2007; the number of seats contested in the House of Representatives in that vote increased from 36 to 41. The same number of seats were contested in the May 24, 2010 elections. The Senate's 31 members are appointed by the president: 16 on the advice of the prime minister, 6 on the advice of the leader of the opposition, and 9 independents selected by the president from among outstanding members of the community. Elected councils administer the nine regional, two city, and three borough corporations on Trinidad. Since 1980 the Tobago House of Assembly has governed Tobago with limited responsibility for local matters.
The country's highest court is the Court of Appeal, whose chief justice is appointed by the president after consultation with the prime minister and leader of the opposition. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London decides final appeal on some matters. Member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) selected Trinidad as the headquarters site for the new Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which is intended eventually to replace the Privy Council for all CARICOM states. The CCJ heard its first case in August 2005. Despite having its seat in Port of Spain, the CCJ has not yet supplanted the Privy Council for Trinidad and Tobago due to a legislative dispute over constitutional reform.
The first political party in Trinidad and Tobago with a continuing organization and program--the People's National Movement (PNM)--emerged in 1956 under Dr. Eric Williams, who became Prime Minister upon independence and remained in that position until his death in 1981. Politics have generally run along ethnic lines, with Afro-Trinidadians supporting the PNM and Indo-Trinidadians supporting various Indian-majority parties, such as the United National Congress (UNC). Most political parties, however, have sought to broaden their appeal, and their candidate lists for the November 2007 and May 2010 parliamentary elections reflected this.
The PNM remained in power following the death of Dr. Williams, but its 30-year rule ended in 1986 when the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), a "rainbow party" aimed at Trinidadians of both African and Indian descent, won a landslide victory by capturing 33 of 36 seats. Tobago's A.N.R. Robinson, the NAR political leader, became Prime Minister. The NAR began to break down when the Indian component withdrew in 1988. Basdeo Panday, leader of the old United Labor Front (ULF), formed the new opposition with the UNC.
In July 1990, the Jamaat al Muslimeen, an extremist Black Muslim group with an unresolved grievance against the government over land claims, tried to overthrow the NAR government. The group held the prime minister and members of parliament hostage for 5 days while rioting and looting shook Port of Spain. After a long standoff with the police and military, Jamaat leader Yasin Abu Bakr and his followers surrendered to Trinidad and Tobago authorities. In 1992, the Court of Appeal upheld the validity of a government amnesty given to the Jamaat members during the hostage crisis. Abu Bakr and 113 other Jamaat members were jailed for 2 years while other courts debated the amnesty's validity. All 114 members were eventually released after a ruling by the U.K. Privy Council.
In 1991 elections, the NAR lost control of the government to the PNM, led by Patrick Manning who became prime minister. The Panday-led UNC finished second and replaced the NAR as chief opposition party. In 1995 Manning called for elections, in which the PNM and UNC both won 17 seats and the NAR won two seats. The UNC allied with the NAR and formed the new government, with Panday becoming prime minister--the first prime minister of East Indian descent. Although elections held in 2000 returned the UNC to power, the UNC government fell in 2001 with the defection of three of its parliamentarians, and the subsequent elections resulted in an even 18-18 split between the UNC and the PNM. President A.N.R. Robinson bypassed his former party colleague Panday by inviting PNM leader Manning to form a government, but the inability to break the tie delayed Parliament from meeting. Manning called elections in 2002, after which the PNM formed the next government with a 20-16 majority.
Elections were held again on November 5, 2007, with the PNM winning 26 seats and the UNC securing the remaining 15; the Congress of the People party (COP) won no seats. Following the vote, Prime Minister Patrick Manning took his oath of office on November 7 to begin another term. In April 2010, however, the Prime Minister determined to dissolve Parliament early and elections were called for May 24. That vote pitted the PNM against a coalition known as the People’s Partnership (PP) made up of the UNC and COP as well as some smaller parties, including the Tobago Organization of the People (TOP) and the Movement for Social Justice. The partnership emerged victorious with 29 seats against the PNM’s 12 seats and Kamla Persad-Bissessar replaced Manning as Prime Minister, becoming the first woman in the nation’s history to hold that office. All three major parties are committed to free market economic policies and increased foreign investment. Trinidad and Tobago cooperates with the United States in the regional fight against narcotics trafficking and on other issues. This positive and fruitful relationship has continued and grown stronger under the PP government. On August 21, 2011, following a weekend of violence including eleven murders, the government declared a state of emergency (SOE) which was extended by Parliament, expiring on December 5, 2011. The curfew accompanying the SOE was controversial and was eventually reduced. On November 24, 2011, the Prime Minister announced the government uncovered an assassination plot against her and several members of her cabinet. Ultimately, seventeen men were arrested under SOE rules, but all were released without charge on December 5 with the expiration of the SOE.
As the most industrialized and second-largest country in the English-speaking Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago has taken a leading role in the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), and strongly supports CARICOM economic integration efforts and has advocated for a greater measure of political security and integration. CARICOM members are working to establish a Single Market and Economy (CSME). In early 2006, Trinidad and Tobago, in conjunction with the larger CARICOM nations, inaugurated the CARICOM Single Market, a precursor to the full CSME. As a first step toward greater security integration, Trinidad and Tobago and the other members of CARICOM collaborated with the U.S. on an Advance Passenger Information System in preparation for the 2007 Cricket World Cup tournament, which took place in nine Caribbean venues in March and April 2007.
Trinidad and Tobago is active in the Summit of the Americas (SOA) process of the Organization of American States (OAS) and hosted the fifth Summit of the Americas in April 2009, attended by President Barack Obama. It has hosted hemisphere-wide ministerial meetings on energy, education, and labor, as well as an OAS meeting on terrorism and security, and plans to host a conference for female leaders in the region in 2011. It also hosted a negotiating session in 2003 for the OAS Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and campaigned to host an eventual FTAA secretariat. Trinidad also played host to the November 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Trinidad and Tobago is a democracy that maintains close relations with its Caribbean neighbors and major North American and European trading partners. After its 1962 independence, Trinidad and Tobago joined the UN and the Commonwealth. In 1967, it became the first Commonwealth country to join the OAS. In 1995, Trinidad played host to the inaugural meeting of the Association of Caribbean States and has become the headquarters location for this 25-member grouping, which seeks to further economic progress and cooperation among its members. Relations with Latin American nations, including Venezuela, are generally cordial, despite the government’s distaste for the Venezuelan PetroCaribe initiative.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (December 2011)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( December 2011)