Polls open in divisive vote for Indonesia capital governor

Gov. Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, a minority Christian and ethnic Chinese, runs for reelection in Jakarta

Incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama greets supporters during a campaign rally in Jakarta, Indonesia. (By Associated Press)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Voting was underway in the election for governor of the Indonesian capital after a months-long campaign in which the monumental problems facing Jakarta took a backseat to religious intolerance and racial bigotry.

More than 13,000 polling places opened to accommodate the 7.1 million people eligible to vote. The election is one of dozens taking place Wednesday across Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Incumbent Gov. Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, a minority Christian and ethnic Chinese, is vying against Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, who is the son of a former president, and Anies Rasyid Baswedan, a moderate now courting the votes of conservative and hard-line Muslims.

Religion and race, rather than the slew of problems that face a car-clogged and sinking Jakarta, have dominated the campaign. Ahok's chances appeared dashed after accusations of blasphemy led to criminal charges and his ongoing blasphemy trial but he has recently rebounded in opinion polls.

Typical of the formalities, a polling place in the Kalideres neighborhood of western Jakarta held a swearing-in ceremony for officials at 7 a.m. and voters began casting their ballots under a red and white tent about 15 minutes later. A public holiday was declared for the voting and central Jakarta's usually gridlocked roads were relatively empty.

Ahok's blasphemy trial and the ease with which hard-liners attracted crowds of several hundred thousand to protest against him in Jakarta have undermined Indonesia's reputation for practicing a moderate form of Islam and shaken the centrist government of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.

Calls for Ahok to be killed and anti-Chinese sentiment were disturbing elements of the protests, one of which turned violent, with dozens injured and one person dying from the effects of tear gas.

Defeat for Ahok would also be a defeat for Indonesia's moderate political leaders and further embolden hard-liners, who say a non-Muslim should not lead Muslims. The governorship is also seen as a launching pad into national politics and possibly the presidency.

So-called "quick count" results compiled by researchers stationed at a sample of the 13,000 polling places will give a reliable indication of the election outcome within hours of the polls closing at 1 p.m.

It's unlikely that any of the three candidates will get the 50 percent of votes required for an outright win.

That would lead to a runoff in April between the top two polling candidates. One scenario is that Ahok proceeds to the second election but is defeated by anti-Ahok voters uniting behind the remaining Muslim candidate.