Democracy supports social and economic reform in Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago possesses robust institutions, with a stable democratic system and strong regional and international ties. Nevertheless, the country has faced a series of corruption cases, and a number of initiatives have been launched to combat this issue. T&T faces further challenges related to unemployment, particularly among the young, along with law and order, though figures remain below that of neighbouring states. Furthermore, recent economic and political instability in Venezuela has led to a rise in the number of refugees in the country.

Political System

T&T is a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster model, with a constitution dating back to 1962. The head of state is a non-executive president elected by an electoral college comprising all the members of the upper and lower chambers of Parliament. The executive is led by the prime minister, who appoints the Cabinet and is accountable to Parliament. Keith Rowley is the current prime minister and head of government, having been elected in September 2015. The legislature consists of a bicameral Parliament, with a directly elected 41-member House of Representatives and a 31-member Senate. Senators are appointed by the President; 16 on the advice of the prime minister, six on the advice of the leader of the opposition and nine being the president’s own choice. Senators serve a term of five years in office.

Locally, T&T is divided into 15 municipal corporations and one ward, namely the island of Tobago. The corporations are administrated by locally elected councils, while Tobago has its own unicameral House of Assembly. Established in 1980, the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) comprises a legislative and executive arm with limited powers.

The legislature of the THA is composed of 12 elected members, each serving four-year terms, while the executive, led by a chief secretary, carries out the tasks of the assembly through its 10 divisions. In addition, T&T is a member of CARICOM, along with 14 other Caribbean states. The organisation is tasked with promoting economic integration and cooperation between member states.

On January 19, 2018 T&T’s electoral college elected Paula-Mae Weekes, retired justice of appeal, the country’s first female president. President Weekes succeeded former President Anthony Carmona to become the sixth president of T&T. An independent politician, she stood unopposed as the nominee named by the government and was endorsed from the parliamentary opposition. She was sworn into office on March 19, 2018, becoming the only sitting female president in the Americas. In a further sign of the responsiveness of the country’s institutions to changing times, the T&T High Court overhauled previous legislation that discriminated against homosexuality in April 2018. The court ruling fully decriminalised same-sex relationships and ruled the former law unconstitutional.

Two-Player Game

Although T&T has a multi-party system with 10 active parties, Trinbagonian politics are dominated by two main parties: the People’s National Movement (PNM) and the United National Congress (UNC). The PNM, founded by Eric Williams in 1955, won the first post-independence election and established itself as the dominant party in T&T’s political life . Between 1956 and 1986 the PNM won every general election in the country. The National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) was established in 1986 with the aim of being a multi-racial pluralist party. It provided the first significant opposition to PNM and won 66% of the vote in 1986, which marked the first time the PNM had been defeated in a general election.

Following a split in the NAR in 1988, the UNC was founded by veteran politician and trade unionist official Basdeo Panday in 1989. Traditionally, party membership and voting patterns have been separated along ethnic lines, with the PNM receiving support from Afro-Trinbagonians and the UNC drawing primarily on Indo-Trinbagonians.

Looking Back

Upon becoming independent in August 1962 the UK monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, remained titular head of state of T&T. This role was retained until 1976, when the country formally became a republic. Economic instability in the 1960s and early 1970s led to growing student discontent and the emergence of the Black Power movement. However, pressure on the government eased as a result of the surge in international oil prices between 1973 and 1982, which provided the state with increased fiscal space for public investment.

Williams, who had led the independence movement and, subsequently, the country during the first three decades following independence, died in office in 1981. Following his death, George Chambers led the PNM, but was defeated by the NAR in the 1986 election. The new multi-ethnic coalition led by ANR Robinson campaigned under the slogan of national unity. The coalition was subsequently shaken by a series of high profile defections, including that of Panday. Following this, the government was further destabilised in 1990 by an attempted coup carried out by militant Islamist group, Jamaat Al Muslimeen. The small extremist organisation took the prime minister hostage amid violence and widespread looting in Port of Spain. The army ultimately defeated the insurrection and restored order, but the political shock it delivered to the country was a factor in bringing the PNM back into office in 1991, this time under the leadership of Patrick Manning.

Nevertheless, in 1995 the UNC succeeded in bringing Panday into office as the country’s first prime minister of Indian descent. Following this, a pattern of alternating power between the UNC and the PNM began to develop in the country. In 2010 the UNC, together with a coalition of smaller left-of-centre parties in the Peoples’ Partnership coalition, won the elections under the leadership of Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who became the first female prime minister in the country’s history.

However, in September 2015 the PNM retook the leadership, receiving 52% of the popular vote and winning 23 of the 41 seats in the House of Representatives. Prime Minister Rowley assumed office following the election and is expected to retain the position until the next general election in 2020.

Outward Looking

T&T has charted a sovereign course in its foreign policy following the end of colonial rule, while maintaining strong and cordial relations with the UK. The country takes an active role in both regional and international organisations, such as the Organisation of American States and the UN.

Overall, the foreign policy of the country emphasises economic and political cooperation with its Caribbean neighbours. As such, T&T has played a prominent role in CARICOM since its foundation in 1973. Meanwhile, the country has maintained good relations with the US, while simultaneously pursuing diplomatic and trade ties with states such as Cuba.

Cabinet Reshuffle

Following a series of investigations regarding government corruption, Prime Minister Rowley announced a Cabinet reshuffle in April 2018. While these incidents have caused concern, the position of T&T in international rankings of corruption has marginally improved in recent years. For example, the country scored 77 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, down from 80 in 2012. In an effort to improve the accountability of elected representatives and reduce corruption there have been calls for constitutional reform to enable electors to recall representatives, along with reviews of the manner in which candidates are selected for office.


In a move that highlights the flexibility of the country’s democratic institutions, the island of Tobago has achieved increased autonomy. The administration of the two islands was combined under UK rule in 1889. Tobago is considerably smaller than Trinidad, with a much smaller population. Following independence, Tobago functioned as an administrative and electoral region of the country, with administration being handled solely through the Ministry of Tobago Affairs.

Since this time there have been increased demands for devolution, which resulted in the establishment of the THA in 1980. Tasked with the administration of local affairs, the THA remains to this day the main institution in charge of Tobago’s affairs. The THA has responsibilities over specific areas of local affairs, including agriculture, maritime affairs, the environment, tourism and transport, planning and development, infrastructure and public utilities, health and social services, finance, and enterprise development, among others. Orville London was chief secretary from 2001 to late 2016, when the assembly was dissolved in anticipation of new elections on January 23, 2017. Kelvin Charles of the PNM won 10 out of 12 seats in the THA, becoming London’s successor.

In 2013 the PNM began campaigning for greater autonomy for the island of Tobago and established the Forum of Political Parties to undertake extensive consultations with the island’s populace about increased autonomy. Following this they began work on drafting a bill outlining a path towards greater self-governance. The resulting law, the Tobago Self Government Bill of 2018, was presented to the parliamentary Joint Select Committee in March 2018. The committee is comprised of members of both houses of Parliament and was expected to present its recommendations on the bill to Parliament in July 2018. While the bill is expected to pass, the precise level of self-governance provided to Tobago will be subject to Parliament and will require amendments to be made to the constitution of T&T.

Youth Unemployment

While the country’s democratic institutions have coped well with such legal challenges, a number of macroeconomic issues remain. Unemployment, particularly among the young, presents a challenge across the region and T&T is no exception. Overall, the unemployment rate has remained relatively stable, rising from 5.4% in 2014 to 5.5% in 2017, according to the World Bank. Nevertheless, youth unemployment has risen rapidly, from 7.9% in 2013 to 11.4%, over the same period. While these figures can in part be explained by volatility in the international prices of oil and gas, they are also symptomatic of the transition to a higher stage of development, with labour market demand shifting towards higher levels of skill and training.

While these figures are far from high by regional standards in the Caribbean, they nonetheless present development challenges that will need to be addressed for the country to continue to move forward. Traditionally, the government has struggled to provide a consistent policy programme to overcome these issues. Nevertheless, the administration has a legacy of successful programmes, particularly from the non-governmental sector, to learn from and draw upon. Emerging out of black power movement of the 1970s, Service Volunteered for All (SERVOL) is a community development organisation established by Father Gerard Pantin, a Roman Catholic priest, and Wes Hall, a Barbadian cricketer. Since its inception, SERVOL has set about providing education, support and training for children, adolescents and young adults from lower-income households to help them find secure employment and overcome the country’s racial and class divides. While the organisation operates independently of the state, it receives half of its funding from the Ministry of Education, with the remaining half coming from international development agencies including the World Bank.

While these efforts have done much to overcome inequality in access and outcomes of basic education and training, they have so far proved insufficient in addressing the current skill mismatch for professional employment. In a situation similar to other high-income economies, T&T currently faces an oversupply of graduates in social science and business degrees and an undersupply of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In an effort to meet the challenges arising from the changing dynamics of the domestic and international labour market, Anthony Garcia, the minister of education, announced a series of public-private partnerships aimed at improving access to training and educational outcomes in line with the changing requirements of industry. The announcement, which was made at the conference of the government and World Bank-backed Youth Training and Employment Partnership Programme in May 2018, aim to overcome current bottlenecks in productivity and international competitiveness by nurturing innovation.

Immigration & Refugees

While official statistics are hard to come by, T&T is currently experiencing an influx of migrants from across the Caribbean, particularly from Venezuela. While the lion’s share of migrants arriving from Venezuela are fleeing economic instability, a significant number have arrived seeking asylum, claiming political persecution under the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been collaborating with Caribbean governments, including that of T&T, to cope with the influx of refugees.

In April 2018 the UNHCR reported that 82 Venezuelan asylum seekers had been forcibly deported from the country, though T&T officials have contested this claim. Such issues highlight, however, that the current legislation covering immigration and asylum is struggling to adequately meet the challenges of a period of increasingly complex migration flows. In the Caribbean, only Belize has specific legislation for refugees, while T&T has a refugee policy but no supporting legislation in place. Although the country signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol in November 2000, these have not been incorporated into domestic legislation to date.

However, the drafting process to do so is now under way, and this process is being undertaken in collaboration with various stakeholders, including the government of T&T, the UNHCR and other NGOs. These reforms appear set to ease the country’s migration process for refugees, however further changes remain to be made in updating the country’s broader immigration system.

With the right policies in place, the twin-island’s economy could benefit significantly. Net migration is estimated at negative 5.9 migrants per 1000 of the population in 2017 – meaning that more people are leaving the country than entering it. Significant opportunities therefore exist for T&T – the third richest economy in the Americas in terms of GDP per capita – to attract migrants from regional neighbours to fill gaps in the labour market.


T&T faces a number of major obstacles that it will need to overcome in order to achieve stable and sustained development. These challenges include youth unemployment and the challenge of regional instability and mass migration movements around the continent and wider world. Furthermore, problems of law and order and the need for economic diversification beyond oil and gas constitute ongoing problems for the islands. The issue of outward migration, which is compounded by a relatively low fertility rate, will also need to be dealt with.

Moreover, ongoing shifts in the labour markets of high income countries, brought about by broader shifts in the global economy will present further challenges. Nevertheless, the political institutions and democratic culture of T&T have shown themselves to be reactive to the challenges of development. Moving forward the country can hope to effectively leverage these institutions to further implement reforms to secure equitable growth.


You have reached the limit of premium articles you can view for free. 

Choose from the options below to purchase print or digital editions of our Reports. You can also purchase a website subscription giving you unlimited access to all of our Reports online for 12 months.

If you have already purchased this Report or have a website subscription, please login to continue.

Cover of The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2018

The Report

This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2018. Explore other chapters from this report.

Covid-19 Economic Impact Assessments

Stay updated on how some of the world’s most promising markets are being affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and what actions governments and private businesses are taking to mitigate challenges and ensure their long-term growth story continues.

Register now and also receive a complimentary 2-month licence to the OBG Research Terminal.

Register Here×

Product successfully added to shopping cart