Jakarta (AFP) - Indonesians voted Wednesday in the tightest and most divisive presidential election since the downfall of dictator Suharto, pitting Jakarta governor Joko Widodo against Prabowo Subianto, an ex-general with a chequered human rights record.
After a bitterly fought campaign that saw long-time favourite Widodo's lead shrink dramatically, voters in the world's third-biggest democracy must choose between two starkly different candidates.
A former furniture exporter from a humble background, Widodo is the first serious presidential contender without links to the authoritarian past, who is seen as likely to usher in a new style of leadership and consolidate democracy.
Prabowo, a former son-in-law of Suharto who has admitted ordering the abduction of democracy activists before the strongman's downfall in 1998, has won support with promises of firm leadership in a country where many yearn for a strong figurehead.
But critics fear he may shift Indonesia back towards authoritarian rule.
"In terms of Indonesia's democratic journey, this is potentially a very important juncture," said Tobias Basuki, an analyst from the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Most polling stations in the country's easternmost province of Papua opened at 7 am (2200 GMT Tuesday) as scheduled, but days of heavy rain and winds have left dozens of remote areas awaiting ballot boxes and papers, officials said.
Katharina Utomo, 38, was the first to vote at a small polling station in Papua, weary-eyed from watching a World Cup match in the early hours.
"I voted for Jokowi because I think he's made himself close to the people and he also came here to Papua to campaign," said Utomo, a housewife.
As the sun rose over the capital, Jakarta, police were carrying out security checks at a park in the city centre, near where Widodo is expected to cast his vote in front of supporters.
- Flood of smears -
Several months ago Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, looked to be on a smooth course to lead the country, which has about 190 million eligible voters.
But, after a polarising campaign, his once-huge poll lead has shrunk.
The Jakarta governor was targeted by smears, including a claim that he is an ethnic Chinese Christian and not a Muslim, a deeply damaging charge in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.
He vehemently denied the claim.
A poll out Tuesday gave him a lead of just 2.7 percentage points, and with a large number of undecided voters, analysts say the race is wide open.
A series of "quick counts" by pollsters on the day are expected to give an accurate indication of the winner. Official results are not due out for about two weeks.
Whoever wins will be the country's second directly elected president after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who steps down in October after a decade of stable but often indecisive rule.
It will be a delicate transition. Growth is slowing in Southeast Asia's top economy, corruption is rampant, millions remain mired in poverty, and fears are mounting that Islamic radicals returning from Middle East conflicts could revive militant networks.
Widodo, 53, shot to national prominence when he was elected Jakarta governor in 2012, and quickly won legions of fans with his common touch and efforts to solve the capital's myriad problems.
He would make regular tours of the metropolis's sprawling slums in casual clothes and was often spotted at heavy metal concerts.
Prabowo, a 62-year-old wealthy businessman, has played up his military background on the campaign trail, at a time when nostalgia is growing in some quarters for a return to the strong rule of the Suharto years.
Many have become disillusioned with the country's messy democracy, and hope a stronger leader can crack down on corruption in one of the world's most graft-ridden nations.
But Prabowo's comments about democracy have caused concern -- in one recent talk, he reportedly said that a Western-style political system, including direct elections, "doesn't suit" Indonesia.
Investors are hoping for a Widodo win, seeing him as a potential reformer, and the rupiah has fallen heavily in recent weeks as Prabowo has gained ground. - AFP