The Dark Lord has returned in Ukraine. And no, not Viktor Yanukovych.
It's a sign of the bewildering times in this country that no one raises an eyebrow when they pass giant advertisements for Darth Vader's campaign to become mayor of Odessa. Masked men have taken over other parts of Ukraine in recent months, so why not "Darth Nikolayevich Vader" for mayor of this Black Sea port?
It's a joke campaign, yes, but a well-funded one. Billboards have been taken out around the city promoting his candidacy. A slick Internet campaign includes well-produced videos showing Mr. Vader and dozens of his loyal white-clad stormtroopers jogging up the 192 steps of Odessa's famous Potemkin Stairs, and shaking down a small-time drug dealer as proof of Mr. Vader's law-and-order credentials.
The billboards in Odessa play to the candidate's well-known strengths. "Strongman. Politician. Father." one reads, over a picture of Mr. Vader pushing a stroller.
Similar advertisements have appeared in the capital, Kiev, where Mr. Vader is also running for mayor. In the question-and-answer section of his website, Mr. Vader has said he would have no problem managing the two cities simultaneously if he wins both posts, since he is, well, building an empire.
Mr. Vader entered the mayoral races after being rejected as a candidate for the country's presidential election, despite posting the $225,000 registration fee.
"This might look like an innocent joke. But this is no laughing matter," Ihor Zhydenko, the head of the Central Election Commission said in explaining why Mr. Vader was thrown off the national ballot. "Someone was trying to turn the presidential election into a farce."
Mr. Vader says he's undaunted, and that Odessa and Kiev are just a starting point. "They stole my victory at the presidential elections, but failed to steal my will for the victory. I assure all my supporters – my decisiveness has never been stronger than it is now," he said in a statement. "That's why I made a decision to run for mayor, mayors of all key cities in Ukraine. Soon I will be in your city, too."
Mr. Vader is registered as the leader of the Internet Party of Ukraine, which has provided the funding for his campaigns. The party was born after 3 per cent of Ukrainians are said to have scribbled the name "Darth Vader" on their ballots as a protest vote during parliamentary elections in 2012. Mr. Vader was not a candidate then.
The Sith Lord will face a tough challenge in Kiev, where opinion polls show that boxing champ Vitaliy Klitschko, a key leader of the pro-Western protests that toppled Mr. Yanukovych, has a comfortable lead.
Mr. Vader has his own revolutionary credentials, having made regular appearances among the anti-Yanukovych protesters in Kiev and other cities. But his long-shot campaign seems better suited to Odessa, a city famous for the humour of its residents.
The semi-serious part of the Internet Party's platform is focused on the need to make Ukraine – a technological laggard in Europe, with less than half the population using the Internet at least once in an average month, and no 3G phone network – better connected.
A Vader-ruled Odessa would see Ukraine's thick bureaucracy "annihilated" in favour of government e-services. All children aged 10 or over would have their own computer.
It's less clear how he would deliver on a proposal to build a "city of the future" in the 19th century catacombs beneath Odessa. He has promised Kiev residents he will somehow move the disaster-hit Chernobyl nuclear plant further from the city.
And – showing a soft side he rarely revealed to his Star Wars children Luke and Leia – he's promised flowers to all women each year on March 8, International Women's Day.
Some reports have said the man behind the black mask is Viktor Shevchenko, a 58-year-old Kiev native, while media have identified him as 27-year-old Aleksey Shevchenko. It's impossible to know if the two men are related, or if there's more than one Darth Vader currently stumping in Ukraine. The Internet Party says their party's leader has legally taken the name Darth Nikolayevich Vader (indicating his father's name was Nikolai) and won't disclose what his name was previously.
These are tense times in Ukraine, and not everybody seems to get the joke. On Friday, Mr. Vader strode through the Privoz open-air market in central Odessa, clad in black and breathing his trademark rasp as he dramatically examinedthe freshness of the produce.
"Some of the shoppers and sales assistants were smiling, but I was surprised that many of them saw him as a real candidate," said Irina Yakovleva, a local journalist who covered Mr. Vader's campaign stop at Privoz.
"A lot of people were criticizing him. They were saying that 'we have a difficult life and I don't think [Mr. Vader's] ideas can solve our problems.'"