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Trinidad & Tobago - Government

Trinidad and Tobago is a unitary state, with a parliamentary democracy modeled after that of Great Britain. The government is based on the Westminster model, with a largely ceremonial President, an appointed Senate, and an elected House of Representatives. The judiciary is independent. The two major political parties are the Peoples National Movement (PNM) and the United National Congress (UNC), which have alternated power, illustrating the strength of T&T's democracy. The parties are heavily, but not exclusively, based on ethnicity, with the PNM supported largely by Afro-Trinidadians and the UNC by Indo-Trinidadians.

The Constitution, which took effect at the time of independence in 1962, was revised in 1976 to provide for an elected president to serve as head of state and commander in chief, a function filled earlier by a governor general appointed by the British monarch. Under the Constitution, Trinidad and Tobago remained a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

The two islands of Trinidad and Tobago were incorporated into a single colony in 1888. Tobago was given a measure of self-government in 1980 and is administered by the Tobago House of Assembly. In 1996, Trinidad and Tobago's Parliament passed further legislation giving Tobago a greater degree of autonomy. Tobago has a regional House of Assembly, set up in 1980, with certain local powers over finances and other delegated responsibilities. It has 12 elected members and several members appointed by the political parties. Constitutional amendments have granted Tobago greater control over urban and rural development, health, education and housing, though its Assembly has no legislative powers.

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 political party which forms the Government, is the party which wins the election by capturing the most constituencies.

The members of the House of Representatives are elected to terms of at least 5 years. Parliamentary elections are are run on the first past the post, one man, one vote system. In this system, the country is divided into constituencies which represent parliamentary seats. During elections, the winner in each constituency is the individual who gains the highest number of votes.

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.

Trinidad and Tobagos parliament has a relatively small membership and being a Member of Parliament (MP) is not a full-time occupation. This means that MPs typically have other careers and oversight committees do not have a substantial pool of professionals from which to draw.

The Constitution provides for an ombudsman to be appointed by the president after consultation with the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The ombudsman serves for a five-year term and may be reappointed. He investigates government acts that do not come under the jurisdiction of the courts, after a complaint of injustice has been filed.

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 constitution and the law provide all defendants with the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Magistrates try both minor and more serious offenses, but in the latter cases, the magistrate must conduct a preliminary inquiry. Trials are public. Defendants have the right to be present, are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and have the right to appeal. Authorities inform them promptly and in detail of all charges.

All defendants have the right to consult with an attorney in a timely manner and have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Authorities provide an attorney at public expense to defendants facing serious criminal charges, and the law requires provision of an attorney to any person accused of murder. Although the courts may appoint attorneys for indigent persons charged with serious crimes, an indigent person may refuse to accept an assigned attorney for cause and may obtain a replacement. Defendants can confront or question adverse witnesses, present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf, and access government-held evidence relevant to their cases. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The government provides free foreign language as well as sign-language interpreters as necessary in court cases.

Although government employment traditionally has been considered a privilege, that perception has changed somewhat as salaries in the public sector have failed to keep up with those in the private sector. Since political administrators are expected to be in positions to influence policy, the Constitution authorizes independent public service commissions that are empowered to appoint, promote, transfer, and discipline personnel in the public career. These commissions are intended to protect career officers from political pressure.

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.

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Page last modified: 23-05-2017 15:48:42 ZULU