| MLADENOVAC, Serbia
MLADENOVAC, Serbia It started as a joke, a way to poke fun at a discredited political class in elections last year for the local assembly in this rundown town in central Serbia.
Communications student Luka Maksimovic, 25, donned a white suit and loafers, an over-sized gold watch and gaudy ring, and rode a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Mladenovac, promising jobs and cash to anyone who would give him their vote.
He assumed the guise of the worst kind of politician - a sleazy fraudster he duly christened Ljubisa 'Beli' Preletacevic. Beli means white in Serbian, while Preletacevic denotes somebody who switches political party for personal gain.
Spreading the word on Youtube and Facebook, his party won 20 percent of the vote.
"We were just fooling around," Maksimovic said. But Serbia's political establishment isn't laughing anymore.
With a presidential election due on April 2, an opinion poll published on Monday has Maksimovic's alter ego coming second, albeit far behind the overwhelming favorite, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
Such a result - barely a week after Maksimovic entered the race - represents a damning indictment of Serbia's beleaguered mainstream opposition and sends a worrying message to the ruling Progressive Party about the depth of popular disenchantment in this impoverished corner of Europe.
A pony-tailed pretender with little in the way of a political program besides bucking the status quo, Maksimovic is the Balkan incarnation of an anti-establishment movement sweeping the West.
"In every election the world over there are people who believe there is no point voting," said political analyst Vojislav Zanetic. "For those kinds of people, someone who is making a joke out of the options open to the average voter is himself the ideal option for those kinds of people."
"Every country that feels the bitter taste of economic crisis, globalization, transition from communism to pseudo-capitalism ... is ripe for such a person," he said.
GANDALF'S MAGIC STAFF
Although Maksimovic has clearly captured the imagination of Serbs angry about endemic graft and low living standards, Prime Minister Vucic seems assured of winning the election by a big margin, possibly avoiding a run-off.
His Progressive Party faces little real challenge for power, thanks in large part to Vucic's personal popularity as a firm hand in a troubled region.
Monday's poll, produced by Ipsos Strategic Marketing and published by the Serbian daily Blic, saw Vucic taking 53 percent of the vote, with Maksimovic second on just 11 percent.
At the cafe of Maksimovic's father, which doubles as his campaign headquarters, locals pose for pictures with the beaming candidate.
Maksimovic’s campaign videos are a hit on social media; Preletacevic riding a horse, doing push-ups like Rocky, clutching a curtain rail as if it were Gandalf’s magic staff in The Lord of the Rings.
But Maksimovic insists it's not only about the laughs. Ten of his party’s 12 councillors in the Mladenovac assembly are serious people, he said, excluding himself and his sidekick.
"We're the biggest opposition in Mladenovac," he said, citing his party's success in having the town's poor quality water supply declared unfit for consumption and efforts to improve transparency in how public money is spent.
Politicians in Serbia, he said, are "dirty, corrupt", and it is time "at least to try to do something to change that".
Sasa Papic, a 42-year-old railway worker in Mladenovac, said the movement could lift turnout among younger voters who might otherwise stay at home.
"He doesn’t have to win – it's enough if he kills that perception that it is shameful to be involved in politics. All the smart people have avoided politics."
Zanetic, the political analyst, said it remained to be seen whether Maksimovic could maintain the momentum.
"Who knows how desperate and angry people are, how revolted they are by what's currently on offer," he said.
Maksimovic, who has ambitions to become a television presenter, said he just hoped to pass his exams in time.
"I'm going to be president and won't have finished university," he fretted.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Gareth Jones)