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ORASAC, Serbia – 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 push-ups, 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.