As he held a Kalashnikov assault rifle, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko made a bold and clear statement to CNN earlier this morning: “we Ukrainian[s] are free people with a great European future,” and he was ready to fight against the Russian invasion to protect that future. In light of Poroshenko’s statement this morning, it is worth looking back on his presidency, which lasted between 2014 and 2019. Poroshenko’s presidency is a unique case in which executive aggrandizement and strategic electoral manipulation are clear, yet the president peacefully transferred power once voters resoundingly rejected him after his first term.
Political scientist Nancy Bermeo defines executive aggrandizement as the weakening of “checks on executive power one by one,” where executives undertake “institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences.” Poroshenko engaged in aggrandizement by consolidating his power over the executive branch, law enforcement agencies, and the media. This undermined both “horizontal” checks on executive power from independent state agencies as well as “vertical” accountability from media organizations, voters, and civil society.
For example, in 2016, sensing growing frustration due to a lack of political reforms, Poroshenko requested the resignation of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, claiming that Yatsenyuk failed to adequately combat corruption. Poroshenko then worked to install a party loyalist as the new Prime Minister. This is a clear example of executive consolidation and democratic erosion: Poroshenko replaced a political opponent with a political ally in a key position of power, undermining the balance between political parties at the executive level, and giving Poroshenko’s party control of 19 of the 24 seats in the Cabinet of Ministers.
At the same time, Poroshenko also appointed a co-partisan from parliament, Yuriy Lutsenko, to be the new Prosecutor General, a position crucial to combatting corruption. To pave the way for his loyalist, however, Poroshenko first had to pressure the parliament into reducing the legal experience required of Prosecutor General nominees, as Lutsenko did not possess a law degree. The weakening of prerequisites to hold the Prosecutor General position, as well as the installation of a party loyalist, undermined the independence of law enforcement in Ukraine for political purposes.
Poroshenko’s efforts at undermining checks on his power extended to attacks on the media as well. For example, documents uncovered after Poroshenko left office revealed that his administration spent millions of dollars off the books paying several TV and radio stations in exchange for favorable coverage of the president and his party. Moreover, several journalists who deviated from the government’s hardline nationalist and anti-Russia positions were subject to harassment and physical attacks, some of which were supported by government officials. Poroshenko therefore attempted to undermine vertical accountability by harassing and attacking the free press, limiting the people’s access to information that contradicted the government’s agenda.
Despite these examples of executive aggrandizement, some argue that Poroshenko ultimately failed to significantly erode Ukraine’s democracy. The clearest evidence of Ukrainian democracy’s strength is that Poroshenko’s bid for reelection was overwhelmingly rejected by voters, as comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election in a landslide.
But even though Poroshenko was unable to leverage his executive power to win a second term in office, however, he did try to use his incumbency to give himself an unfair advantage in the election. Specifically, international observers accused Poroshenko of misusing state resources to bypass campaign finance laws, leveraging social assistance programs to incentivize citizens to vote for him, engaging in under-the-table vote-buying, and even adding an obscure candidate (whose name was nearly identical to one of his main opponents) to the ballot to confuse voters. While these attempts at electoral manipulation stopped short of outright fraud, they do constitute forms of “strategic election manipulation,” where an incumbent attempts to tilt the electoral playing field in their favor without obviously violating the law to avoid international criticism.
Ultimately, however, Poroshenko was simply too unpopular to win reelection, despite his attempts to erode horizontal and vertical accountability. Even though his executive aggrandizement was somewhat successful, he was unable to significantly erode democracy and solidify his position of power.
In this sense, Poroshenko’s electoral defeat signals the resilience and strength of Ukrainian democracy. Poroshenko himself admitted that his main blunder as president was appointing personal and party loyalists to positions of power rather than respecting the Ukrainian people’s demands for democracy. Ukraine’s rejection of Poroshenko in 2019 should give us hope that the country will fight hard to resist future attempts to undermine democracy, despite the current attempts of foreign invaders to install a new autocratic regime. Nancy Bermeo. “On democratic backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 5-19.  Ellen Lust and David Waldner. “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington DC: USAID.” (2015).  Maia Adena, Ruben Enikolopov, Maria Petrova, Veronica Santarosa, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. “Radio and the Rise of the Nazis in Prewar Germany.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 130, no. 4 (2015): 1885-1939.  Bermeo, “On democratic backsliding,” 5-19.