The colourful new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has attracted attention around the world since he took office in June 2016. Few Canadians know much about his country, although for the last several years it has been the principal source of new immigrants to Canada. In 2015 it accounted for 50,812 new permanent residents admitted to Canada, or almost 19 per cent of the 271,660 admitted from all sources. In spite of the close historical ties between the United States and the Philippines, about as many Philippine people now move to Canada as to the United States, which admits more than a million new permanent residents each year from all sources.

The Philippines suffer from a great many problems, including extreme vulnerability to both typhoons and earthquakes; poor communications between the numerous islands of which the country consists; an exceptionally high birth rate; a multiplicity of dialects and languages; a high level of crime and violence, some of it linked to political unrest; and a very unequal distribution of land and other assets among its people. Various insurgent movements, some Marxist and some Islamist, have persisted for decades on Mindanao, the second largest island. Nonetheless, its rate of economic growth in recent years (about 6 per cent per annum) is one of the highest in the world, although admittedly economic growth per capita is less impressive. In addition to those who move permanently to North America, large numbers of Philippine people live and work temporarily around the world, and the money they send home helps to keep the economy afloat.

The name Philippines derives from the king of Spain who claimed sovereignty over the islands in the 16th century. The Spanish converted most of the people to Catholicism and made them adopt Spanish surnames, but made little effort to teach them the Spanish language, which is virtually unknown there today. A sense of national identity did not develop until the end of the 19th century, and was largely the work of the multitalented José Rizal (1861–1896), who was executed by a Spanish firing squad because he had written (in Spanish, ironically) two anticolonial and anticlerical novels. The gigantic monument over his grave, Manila’s most conspicuous landmark, is guarded 24/7 by Philippine soldiers, and the study of his life and works is a compulsory subject in Philippine schools.

Rizal’s death helped to inspire a rebellion against Spanish rule which in turn led to intervention by the United States. The Americans annihilated the feeble Spanish navy in Manila Bay in 1898, and a future president, William Howard Taft, was sent to Manila as the first American governor. The United States occupied the Philippines for nearly half a century, apart from a brief and unpleasant interval of Japanese rule during World War II, and both Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower spent a large part of their military careers in the country. The Americans established a public school system, built railways (now largely abandoned), made English the lingua franca, created and trained a Philippine army (mainly the work of MacArthur), and prepared the country for self-government. After 1934 (except for the Japanese interlude) the Philippines had about the same degree of autonomy as Canada enjoyed in the days of Macdonald and Laurier, and in 1946 it became fully independent and joined the United Nations.

Since the end of the Spanish regime the population has increased from about 18 million to more than 100 million. About half live on the main island of Luzon. The most widely spoken indigenous language is Tagalog, often referred to as “Filipino” by people who speak it, but there are many others. Most middle- and upper-class people on all of the islands can speak at least some English, which is extensively used in the media, government, the armed forces and business.

The political institutions of the Philippines are modelled after those of the United States, with a president and vice-president, a bicameral congress and a supreme court. In contrast to the United States, the president and vice-president are elected separately and may belong to different parties. Since 1986 a president can only be elected once for a term of six years but, as in the United States, if a president dies the vice-president completes his or her term and is eligible for reelection.

Philippine politics is dominated by large landowners. The parties, which do not seem to differ much in ideology or program, are riddled with factionalism, patronage and corruption. Observers familiar with American politics before the New Deal, or Quebec politics before the Quiet Revolution, may not find the level of corruption particularly exceptional, but it is increasingly resented by middle-class Philippine voters. The traditional main parties were the Liberals and the Nationalists – perhaps vaguely analogous to U.S. Democrats and Republicans respectively – which dominated the scene until 1972. Several other party labels have become prominent in recent years and the country now has a multiparty system.

Although democracy has been more durable in the Philippines than in most Third World countries, an exception is the long era of Ferdinand Marcos. Elected president in 1965 and again in 1971, Marcos proclaimed martial law in 1972, citing the threat of Communism as justification, and held office as a dictator until 1986. His regime was supported by the United States, which initially needed its large military and naval bases in the Philippines to conduct the war in Indochina. As the dictator’s health began to fail, opposition to him began to grow. The most prominent opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, Jr., who had been exiled to Massachusetts, returned to Manila in 1983 but was assassinated within minutes of stepping off the airplane. The crime was widely attributed to Marcos, or perhaps to his wife Imelda, who wished to succeed him, but there are other suspects as well and nothing was ever proven.

In 1986 a “People’s Power” movement took to the streets and overturned the dictatorship with minimal violence. Marcos escaped to Hawaii, where he died soon afterwards. Aquino’s widow, Corazón Aquino, was elected president under a revised constitution and served until 1992. The American bases were closed. She was succeeded by Fidel V. Ramos, a professional soldier and the only Protestant ever to hold the office. The next president, Joseph Estrada, was impeached on suspicion of massive corruption after serving half his term and forced out of office. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but promptly pardoned by his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who had been vice-president. She was then elected in her own right and served a total of nine years. Soon after leaving office she was accused of electoral fraud and then of embezzling funds from the national lottery. After several years of legal battles and some time in jail she was acquitted on all charges in July 2016.

Benigno Aquino III, the son of Corazón and Benigno, Jr., was elected president as a Liberal in 2010. Under his administration the economy flourished. Capital punishment was abolished (for the second time; it had been abolished during his mother’s administration and restored after she left office). The armed forces were strengthened and military ties with the United States were partially restored in response to territorial disputes with China. However, failure to deal with corruption, crime and the ongoing insurgencies on Mindanao, which some foreign governments have advised their citizens not to visit, reduced his popularity.

The stage was set for the election of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency in 2016. Duterte had been the mayor of Davao, the country’s second largest city, for several years and boasted that he had eradicated crime in the city. He promised to do the same at the national level if elected. He won an impressive plurality in a race among several candidates, including an overwhelming majority of the votes cast by Philippine citizens living overseas. Some of his support was based on nostalgia for Marcos, whose son came very close to being elected vice-president at the same time, and whom he wants to bury in a military heroes’ cemetery. However, Duterte is more impulsive and outspoken than his hero and is a populist rather than a true conservative. The temptation to compare him with Donald Trump is almost irresistible. When a visit by Pope Francis made the traffic jams in Manila even worse than usual, his response was “Pope, son of a whore, go home. Don’t visit any more.” More recently, he used the same epithet in relation to President Obama, who was definitely not amused. In foreign policy he is abandoning the pro-American orientation of the younger Aquino and leaning more toward Russia and China. Several years ago he said that he “hated” the United States.

However, he is notorious in other countries, and popular in his own, primarily because of the methods by which he seeks to eradicate crime, and particularly the drug trade. Before being elected he promised that the fish in Manila Bay would grow fat on the bodies of criminals whom he would kill and throw into the harbour. Several thousand people suspected of drug dealing and other crimes have actually been killed without trial by police and other agents of the state since he took office, a fact that has led to protests from the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. In September, four months after the election, he proclaimed a “state of lawlessness,” which he insisted was not the same as the martial law proclaimed by Marcos. Fears have been expressed that foreign investors and tourists will avoid the country if the mayhem continues.

It remains to be seen whether Duterte will become more conventional as he continues in office and depart peacefully at the end of his six-year term or whether his raucous beginning is the prelude to another dictatorship like that of Marcos, or even worse. At the time of writing all bets are off.