Both sides claim victory in tight Indonesia election race

JAKARTA - Both sides claimed victory Wednesday in Indonesia's tightest and most divisive presidential election since the end of authoritarian rule, as unofficial tallies showed Jakarta governor Joko Widodo leading ex-general Prabowo Subianto.

Widodo, the first serious presidential contender without roots in the era of dictator Suharto, declared victory in the world's third largest democracy after the tallies from reliable polling agencies showed him leading by four to five percentage points.

But shortly afterwards Prabowo, who has admitted human rights abuses during the Suharto era and was formerly married to one of the strongman's daughters, also claimed victory.

Prabowo said survey institutes used by his campaign team showed that he and running mate Hatta Rajasa "have received the support and mandate from the people of Indonesia".

A spokesman for Widodo's campaign, Anies Baswedan, called on Prabowo and his running mate to behave like "statesmen".

"For me, all credible survey institutes declared our victory at a minimum of five per cent," he said.

It was an unprecedented standoff in Indonesia since Suharto's downfall in 1998. The only two other direct presidential elections since then were won resoundingly by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The unofficial tallies that Widodo's party relied on, known as "quick counts", have accurately predicted the winner of previous elections.

However official results are not due for around two weeks, due to the complexity of holding elections across the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands that spans three time zones.

Humble background

A former furniture exporter from a humble background, Widodo -- known by his nickname Jokowi -- is seen as likely to usher in a new style of leadership and consolidate democracy should he win the election.

Prabowo has won support with promises of firm leadership in a country where many yearn for a strong chief. But critics fear he may shift Indonesia back towards authoritarian rule.

Earlier, Widodo was mobbed by hundreds of journalists and supporters as he voted at a polling station near the Jakarta governor's residence.

A screaming crowd packed into a nearby park to see him, chanting his name or trying to take his picture.

Prabowo was also greeted by an enthusiastic crowd as he voted at a polling station near his countryside house outside the capital, arriving in a jeep and escorted by two mounted policemen.

Some 190 million voters were eligible to cast ballots.

Polling stations across the country, from eastern Papua to the main island of Java and jungle-clad Sumatra in the west, closed at 1:00 pm and no major disruptions were reported.

Widodo's huge lead shrank during the campaign when he was targed by a series of smears. This included 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.

Analysts have said the large number of undecided voters has made the race hard to call.

The eventual winner will be the second directly elected president after Yudhoyono, who steps down in October after a decade of stable but often indecisive rule.

Delicate transition

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 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, now a 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 chaotic 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.