The larger of the two islands, Trinidad, was captured by the British from Spain in 1797. The smaller island, Tobago, was disputed by the Dutch, French, and English until it was ceded to the British in 1814. The islands were administratively joined in 1888. Trinidad and Tobago became self-governing in 1956 and gained its independence from Britain in 1962. In 1976, they became a republic within the British Commonwealth. Trinidad and Tobago has a parliamentary system patterned along the lines of the British Westminster system. General elections for the 36 members of the House of Representatives are held every five 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. The president, who is the head of state and performs mainly ceremonial and procedural duties, is elected to a five-year term by an electoral college. 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. The House of Representatives is made up of 36 members elected to serve five-year terms. The prime minister is the leader of the party that has the majority of parliamentary seats.
Trinidad and Tobago is a multiparty state, but from independence until 1986 the Afro-Trinidadian People's National Movement (PNM) dominated. In 1986, an ethnically heterogeneous alliance with its center of strength on Tobago, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), was voted into power by a populace seeking change. The NAR alliance collapsed, however, and a segment formed the Indo-Trinidadian United National Congress (UNC). A revitalized PNM returned to power in 1991. In 1995, an early election vote produced a 17–17 stalemate in parliamentary seats between the two main parties, the PNM and the UNC. The NAR itself won its two traditional seats in Tobago and joined with the UNC in the country's first coalition government, and the first one to be headed by an Indo-Trinidadian prime minister.