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Indonesia's 'everyman' leader on track to beat ex-general

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo showing his ink-stained finger after casting his ballots during elections in Jakarta.

Jakarta

INDONESIA'S Joko Widodo was on track to be re-elected leader of the world's third-biggest democracy as unofficial results put him in a comfortable lead over firebrand ex-general Prabowo Subianto after voting closed on Wednesday across the 17,000-island archipelago.

Indonesia's ruling coalition, which backs Mr Joko, is also on course to win more than half the votes in an election for the national Parliament, based on a count of more than 60 per cent of ballots cast on Wednesday, two pollsters said. Indonesia held simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections on Wednesday.

While official results are not due until May 22, a series of so-called "quick counts" by pollsters showed Mr Joko as much as 11 percentage points ahead. The vote ended at 1:00pm (0600 GMT) in Sumatra, although some of the 800,000 polling stations across the volcano-dotted nation remained open late due to delays and long queues.

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The quick counts have proven reliable indicators in past elections, but Mr Joko held off declaring victory. "We've all seen exit poll and quick count numbers, but we still need to wait for the official results," he told cheering supporters in Jakarta.

His 67-year-old rival - who lost to Mr Joko in their 2014 presidential contest and warned he would challenge this year's results if he lost - insisted that exit polls suggested he was in the lead. He did not cite specific evidence.

"I'm calling on my supporters to keep calm and don't get provoked," he said.

The campaign was punctuated by bitter mudslinging and a slew of fake news online - much of it directed at the presidential contenders.

"I hope after this that there will be a call for reconciliation because ... we've been living in a very polarised atmosphere," political analyst Gun Gun Heryanto told Kompas TV.

From the jungles of Borneo to the slums of Jakarta, Wednesday saw millions of Indonesians cast their ballots in one of the world's biggest exercises in democracy.

Horses, elephants, motorbikes, boats and planes were pressed into service to get ballot boxes out across the vast country that is home to hundreds of ethnic groups and languages.

More than 190 million voters were asked to choose between the incumbent Mr Joko and his fiery nationalist rival, who has strong ties to the country's three-decade Suharto dictatorship.

The call to prayer had rang out as voting began at first light in restive Papua province in the east of the 4,800 kilometre-long Muslim majority nation.

Leading in pre-vote polls, Mr Joko, 57, pointed to his ambitious drive to build much-needed roads, airports and other infrastructure across South-east Asia's largest economy. But Mr Joko, a political outsider with an everyman personality when he swept to victory in 2014, has seen his rights record criticised owing to an uptick in discriminatory attacks on religious and other minorities.

His choice of conservative cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate also raised fears about the future of Indonesia's reputation for moderate Islam.

The soft-spoken Mr Joko stands in stark contrast to Mr Subianto, a strongman who courted Islamic hardliners and promised a boost to military and defence spending.

Echoing US President Donald Trump, Mr Subianto vowed to put "Indonesia first" by reviewing billions of dollars in Chinese investment. His long-held presidential ambitions, however, have been dogged by a chequered past and strong ties to the Suharto dictatorship, which collapsed two decades ago and opened the door for what is now a flourishing democracy.

Mr Subianto - who moved to soften his strongman image with an Instagram account featuring his cat Bobby - ordered the abduction of democracy activists as the authoritarian regime collapsed in 1998, and was accused of committing atrocities in East Timor.

A record 245,000 candidates ran for public office, from the presidency and parliamentary seats to local positions - the first time all were held on the same day. Voters punched holes in ballots - to make clear their candidate choice - and then dipped a finger in Muslim-approved halal ink, to prevent double-voting in a graft-riddled country where ballot-buying is rife.

About two million military and civil protection force members were deployed to ensure the vote went smoothly, including in mountainous Papua where rebels have been fighting for decades to split from Indonesia. AFP, REUTERS