MLADENOVAC, Serbia (AP) — A young man poses as a sleazy, bejeweled politician in a white suit, sitting atop a white horse surrounded by hordes of bodyguards while promising jobs and prosperity to the voters.
Luka Maksimovic and his friends started out to have fun, but the young pranksters have become a sensation — and have been elected to office — after finishing second in a local vote in a run-down industrial town in central Serbia.
The success of the rookie citizens' group at last weekend's election in Mladenovac, outside Belgrade, seems to reflect widespread disillusionment with politicians in crisis-stricken Serbia and the desire for new, young faces still untouched by the corruption that has plagued all aspects of the Balkan country's political scene.
Maksimovic and his friends said the election outcome surprised them as well.
"This is quite a shock. None of us are experienced politicians," the 24-year-old media and communications student told The Associated Press. "It all started out as a joke. ... We wanted to make video clips mocking Serbia's political scene."
Maksimovic described his alter ego — Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli — as the worst possible version of a typical Serbian politician: He is loud and dishonest, owns a shady business and obeys no rules. He promises jobs and better lives, but never delivers.
During campaigning, Preletacevic parodied Serbia's political reality: bare-chested, he saved children from imaginary danger, posed with small animals in his arms, handed out forged university diplomas and promised healthier sandwiches than his opponents.
Even the name Preletacevic is symbolic. The English translation would be something like "Switchover" — suggesting that he switches political parties easily for personal gains. His closest aide — Sticker — is sticking to his boss without asking questions.
"This is a satire, a show, but it turned out that people responded to it," Maksimovic said.
The group's election list, dubbed "Hit it Hard — Beli," won 20 percent of the votes, or 13 out of 50 or so seats in the municipal council — behind the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Aleskandar Vucic's populist Progressive Party but ahead of all the opposition parties in Mladenovac.
The future council members from the list include Preletacevic and Sticker, but also independent activists determined to help change the situation in their town and serve as a control mechanism for the work of the local authorities, Maksimovic said.
Draza Petrovic, the editor-in-chief of the liberal Danas daily and a satirical columnist, said the happenings in Mladenovac show that citizens increasingly have been turning to irony and satire as a form of opposition to the dismal reality of their everyday lives.
"People are looking for opposition leaders among the people who are not part of the political establishment and who are fun," Petrovic said. "They are definitely disappointed with official politics."
Petrovic predicted that the Mladenovac group could set an example for other Serbian towns and future elections.
Amid Serbia's recent economic crisis, Mladenovac has turned from an industrial hub into a worn-out town, where many of the 20,000 residents have been left without jobs after factories closed one after another.
The situation is similar throughout the country, even though Serbia has recently made advances in its bid to one day join the European Union.
Out in the streets, Mladenovac citizens laugh and wave as a cheerful, blue-eyed Preletacevic walks the town in his white suit, his hair bundled on top of his head.
"At least, he jokes," said 63-year-old Dusan Glisic, who is jobless. "The others pretend to be serious, but they most certainly have been kidding with us."
Emergency nurse Emilija Milosevic, 43, described Maksimovic as a "real refreshment which brings hope that people can actually use their brains."
Maksimovic and his friends said that although they started in mockery, they will take their roles seriously. Maksimovic promises to keep an eye on municipal spending and make local strongmen uneasy.
"I will be there in my white suit, to remind the others who they really are," Maksimovic said. "We are there now and that's it, like a destiny or something."