Indonesians face stark choice in pivotal presidential vote

Indonesians face stark choice in pivotal presidential vote
A woman walks past a poster of Indonesia's presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto (L) and Joko Widodo during a debate in Jakarta June 15, 2014.

JAKARTA - Indonesians vote Wednesday in the country's most pivotal presidential election since the downfall of dictator Suharto, with Jakarta governor Joko Widodo and an ex-general with a chequered human rights record in a tight race.

Voters face a stark choice between Widodo, the first serious presidential contender without deep roots in the Suharto era, seen as likely to strengthen democracy, and Prabowo Subianto, who critics fear may shift Indonesia back towards authoritarian rule.

Since Suharto's downfall in 1998 after a three-decade dictatorship, Indonesia has transformed into a freewheeling democracy.

However corruption has flourished among the new political class, and nostalgia is growing in some quarters for a return to an era of stronger rule.

"This is going to be an election that determines whether Indonesia moves forward or starts to look backwards," said Paul Rowland, an independent political analyst based in the capital Jakarta.

Several months ago Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, looked to be on a smooth course to the presidency of the world's third-biggest democracy, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, with about 190 million eligible voters.

Swing voters crucial

But after a polarising campaign, Widodo's once-huge poll lead has shrunk considerably.

He was targeted by a flood of smears, including that he is not a Muslim - a serious charge in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.

With surveys showing 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 for about three weeks.

Whoever wins will be the country's second directly-elected president after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who steps down this year after a decade of stable but often indecisive rule.

He has served two terms of five years each and is constitutionally barred from running for a third.

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.

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