DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And we have a new entry on the list of the world's political dramas. In this case, it's also a comedy. Joanna Kakissis reports on the upcoming presidential election in Serbia.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The self-proclaimed most beautiful candidate in Serbia arrives in the sleepy town of Kovacica at midday, a loudspeaker perched atop his aging car. His name is Ljubisa Beli Preletacevic, or just Beli for short. He's tall, blue-eyed and wearing his signature white suit and shoes, his long hair in a knot above his head. He tells NPR that he has a message for voters.
LJUBISA BELI PRELETACEVIC: (Through interpreter) A new politician is here to save you. I'm pure and clean. Whatever the other politicians promise you, I will promise you three times more.
KAKISSIS: Beli has surprised the townspeople here, showing up on a whim. They're thrilled to see him. Grown men in handlebar mustaches hug him. Grandmothers pinch his cheeks. He buys all of them ice cream and poses in front of a museum of peasant art.
BELI: (Through interpreter) I'll give jobs to everyone and big pensions to everyone. I'm going to move this sea here because we need a beach.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).
KAKISSIS: Beli founded a satirical party last year that, to everyone's surprise, won 12 seats on his hometown's local council. His presidential campaign slogan is Samo Jako, which means hit it hard in Serbian. Campaign videos feature him doing pushups, sucking on raw eggs and riding on a white horse. He kicked off the last week of his campaign by artificially inseminating a cow. Beli's real name is Luka Maksimovic. He's a 25-year-old communication student from Mladenovac, a depressed former factory town outside the capital, Belgrade.
JASMINA NUMIC: (Singing in foreign language).
KAKISSIS: At a music bar run by his father, I meet his cousin, a 43-year-old singer named Jasmina Numic.
NUMIC: We love satire. We love humor. In the baddest times we turn to laugh. We choose to smile before crying even when we want to cry.
KAKISSIS: And hope masquerading as humor is what Beli serves up in his self-funded campaign.
BELI: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: There will be no corruption, excluding my own of course, he declares to one crowd. Please send all money directly to my pockets. Drama student Danka Svetilova laughs and asks for a selfie. She says mainstream politicians have lied to Serbs for years.
DANKA SVETILOVA: And we were just tolerating it, not doing anything, but he's awesome because (laughter) it's really a parody on that political scene in Serbia.
KAKISSIS: So that's why she and her schoolteacher mom are voting for Beli in this Sunday's presidential election. Better a fake candidate who tells the truth about lying, she says, than a real one who lies about telling the truth. Most members of Beli's party are actually serious, like local councilwoman Jovana Ilic who wants to make government more transparent.
JOVANA ILIC: We show to people how every one of us can be the change in our society.
KAKISSIS: Analyst Vojislav Zanetic explains that Beli and his party are like the Balkan version of the populist movement sweeping Europe and the U.S.
VOJISLAV ZANETIC: I think that people who are supporting him are too much angry or too much disappointed to support anybody else.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Chanting in foreign language).
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).
KAKISSIS: And he's a sensation. At his next campaign stop, about 2,000 people are waiting for him in a park. The polls say the current prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, is expected to come in first in the presidential election. But for this crowd of disenchanted citizens, Beli is king. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Kovacica, Serbia.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE VOICELESS' "AND SO I WATCH YOU FROM AFAR")
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