The “most beautiful candidate in Serbia” (self-proclaimed) arrives in the sleepy town of Kovavica at midday, a loudspeaker perched atop his aging car.
He’s tall, blue-eyed and wearing his signature white suit, tie and shoes, his long hair in a man-bun.
His name is Ljubisa Beli Preletacevic, or just Beli for short. It means “the guy in white who switches his beliefs for political gain,” says the candidate himself.
“I’m every bad politician rolled up into one young, strong man,” he declares.
Beli’s real name is Luka Maksimovic. He’s a 25-year-old communications student from Mladenovac, a depressed former factory town outside the capital, Belgrade.
Last year, the satirical political party he started, Sarmu probo nisi (“You haven’t tasted the sarma,” a kind of stuffed cabbage roll), won 20 percent of the vote in Mladenovac and 12 seats on the municipal council, though so far no members have been elected to parliament.
Most of those councilors are actually serious, like local councilwoman Jovana Ilic, who wants to make government more transparent.
“We show people how every one of us can be the change in our society,” she says.
Serbs will elect a new president this Sunday, and a recent public opinion poll shows 11 percent of voters supporting Beli.
That means he’s running second to the favorite, Aleksandar Vucic, the current prime minister, backed by more than half of Serb voters. Beli is running ahead of more established candidates such as Serbia’s former national ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic.
Vucic, once a far-right nationalist allied with strongman Slobodan Milosevic, now promotes himself as a pro-EU reformer. He maintains a firm grip on most of Serbia’s media. On Thursday, days before the presidential election, seven major newspapers published Vucic’s campaign poster on their front pages.
“Some voters may have noticed that Vucic leads a system that’s a malfunction of democracy, like Viktor Orban in Hungary,” says Vojislav Zanetic, a political analyst in Belgrade. “Others blame him because they are worse off economically than there were in the past.”
Ivica Marinkovic, a 48-year-old ironsmith who supports Beli, says Vucic may claim to be a pro-Western reformer, but has behaved as an autocrat and done little to improve life for regular Serbs.
The unemployment rate in this country of about seven million was 19 percent last year.
“Life must be really bad for us if we are voting for a young comedian who is running for president under a fake persona,” Marinkovic sighs.
He’s sipping a Czech beer at a music bar in Mladenovac owned by Luka Maksimovic’s family. A cousin, Jasmina “Pera” Numic, a 43-year-old singer, belts out a few bars of her favorite song, “At Last,” then explains that satire is the way Serbs deal with pain.
“In the baddest times, we laugh,” she says. “We choose to smile before crying, even when we want to cry.”
Zanetic, the political analyst, explains that Beli and his party are like the Balkan version of the populist movement sweeping Europe — and the U.S. — though they don’t share the xenophobia and anti-European Union sentiments of right-wing populists such as France’s Marine Le Pen and The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders.
“I think people who are supporting Beli are too angry or too disappointed to support anyone else,” Zanetic says.
Beli’s presidential campaign slogan is Samo Jako, which means “hit it hard” in Serbian.
Campaign videos feature him doing push-ups, sucking on raw eggs and riding a white horse.
He kicked off the final week of his campaign by artificially inseminating a cow.
“A new politician is here to save you!” he says in Kovacica, as townspeople come out of their shops and homes to greet him. “I’m pure and clean. Whatever the other politicians promise you, I will promise you three times more.”
The residents of this northern Serbian town are thrilled to see him. Grown men in handlebar mustaches hug him. Grandmothers pinch his cheeks. He buys all of them ice cream.
“I’ll give jobs to everyone, and big pensions to everyone!” he declares. “I’m going to move the sea here because we need a beach! I will be a great uniter of the Balkans and we will be a superpower!”
Drama student Danka Svetilova laughs and asks for a selfie with Beli in front of a local museum of peasant art. She says mainstream politicians have been lying to Serbs for years.
“And we were just tolerating that and not doing anything,” she says. “But [Beli] is awesome because what he’s doing is really a parody [of that] political scene in Serbia.”
That’s why she and her schoolteacher mom are both voting for him. Better a fake candidate who tells the truth about lying, she says, than a real one who lies about telling the truth.
Before he leaves Kovacica, Beli makes another declaration.
“There will be no corruption — excluding my own, of course,” he says. “Please send all money directly to my pockets.”
Then he’s off to his next campaign stop in Zrenjanin, where about 2,000 people are waiting for him in a park.
“Ave Beli!” they chant, as night falls. “Welcome! Samo Jako!”
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.