ORASAC, Serbia (AP) — Ahead of Serbia's presidential election on Sunday, a political parody has emerged as a true star.
His real name is Luka Maksimovic, but the 25-year-old student bidding to become the Balkan country's next leader has won fame — and public support — appearing as a grossly exaggerated politician, complete with a white suit, oversized jewelry and a man bun.
Campaigning as a sleazy, loud character who makes wild promises and whose triumph is foretold by fortune tellers, Maksimovic has won over many in crisis-stricken Serbia, which has been plagued by political corruption and is eager for new faces and ideas.
Opinion polls have predicted that Maksimovic could win around 11 percent of the vote Sunday, trailing the powerful populist Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic but surpassing several other established candidates.
This, analysts say, already is a huge success for a newcomer with scarce political experience, no infrastructure and slim funds.
"It's just my charisma!" the communications student joked in an interview with The Associated Press. "Citizens are so anxious to see me that I must sneak in unannounced to avoid huge crowds descending on me!"
Vucic, the front-runner, is hoping to get over 50 percent of the vote Sunday to avoid a presidential runoff on April 16. His status is not threatened by Maksimovic's over-the-top alter-ego, who is dubbed Ljubisa Beli Preletacevic. In all, 11 candidates are running in the race.
Beli, as he is known, first came to life last year, created by young pranksters for a local election in Mladenovac, a drab former industrial hub outside the capital, Belgrade.
Riding on a white horse surrounded by mock bodyguards, Beli and his "Hit it Hard" citizens' group swiftly became a sensation, gathering 20 percent of the vote, which translated into 12 seats in the local assembly.
A year later, Maksimovic says the disarray in Serbia's political scene means the time has come for Beli — which means "white" in Serbian — to move on to the national level.
"There is definitely something wrong in this country if an unreal person can turn on the crowds in such a way," he noted.
While pollsters warn that Beli's popularity is unstable, it's very visible. Wherever he appears, people instantly flock to him seeking photos or autographs, some addressing him as "Mr. President."
Videos featuring Beli doing pushups, sucking a raw egg or treading through a forest like a prophet have been a hit on social media, in sharp contrast to dull, predictable promotional material put out by other presidential candidates.
On Saturday, Maksimovic launched his "Beli caravan" road campaign in a historic Serbian village by climbing a huge white-marble statue of a 19th century Serbian hero, raising his arms high and shouting through a loudspeaker: "I am here to save you people!"
He then went on to artificially inseminate a cow at a nearby farm, while speaking about the miracle of creation.
"For the first time, we have an outsider with a rating" in Serbia's election, said polling expert Srdjan Bogosavljevic.
"A lot of people, particularly the young, want to express their disgust with politics," Bogosavljevic explained. "That disgust has found a response in a candidate who says he will get rich and steal, thus sending a message that politics is a lie."
Nikola Matjasevic, a 21-year-old from Orasac, believes Beli would know better how to run the Balkan nation than its previous leaders.
"Most of young people adore Beli, and most of us will vote for him," Matjasevic said. "We have had enough of pensioners in top positions — look where they got us!"
Maksimovic, meanwhile, jokes that his first move as the new Serbian president would be to marry his girlfriend, Maja Janic, to make her the country's first lady.
His message to other candidates?
"Just take it easy when you lose to Beli!" Maksimovic said. "That's only normal. A new generation is coming!"