By Matthew Bigg
JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's capital voted for a new governor on Thursday, with exit polls showing the challenger was likely to take control of one of the world's largest, and most congested, cities which could give him a chance at the presidency in two years' time.
The campaign has been tainted by hints of religious bigotry and racism, both deeply sensitive issue in the ethnically diverse Southeast Asian country which is also home to the world's largest Muslim community.
Two exit polls showed challenger Joko Widodo leading with about 54 percent. Joko, popularly known as Jokowi, was also ahead of incumbent Fauzi Bowo, a German-educated city planning expert, in the first round.
But it was not enough to avoid a run-off in an election which has focused heavily on the city's grinding traffic, repeated flooding and an increasingly glaring gap between those benefiting from Indonesia's economic boom and the bulk who are left far behind.
A final result is not expected until after this week.
There has been speculation that if Joko has won, he might use his victory as a platform to run for president in 2014 when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono must step down after two terms and for which there is still no clear front runner.
First, Joko would need to address the city's problems and he has vowed to improve transport and drainage as well as to upgrade slum areas.
A VICTIM OF OWN SUCCESS
A win by Joko, currently the popular mayor of Solo city in central Java, would reflect dissatisfaction with the incumbent's perceived failure to get a grip on the city's problems.
Jakarta is a victim of its own success. The city boasts a forest of glitzy high rises and some of the grandest shopping malls in Asia but also densely packed residential neighborhoods and extreme poverty.
Urbanization and a rapidly growing middle class, as well as structural problems such as low-lying residential areas prone to flooding, have made it hard to manage, a problem only worsened by rampant corruption - issues both candidates have pledged to resolve.
Jakarta is home to 10 million people, with so many cars and motorbikes that rush hour traffic crawls at an average 6.1 kph (3.8 mph).
There have been some calls by prominent Muslims to vote for candidates who practice that religion, taken as implied encouragement not to vote for Joko, whose running mate is Christian and ethnic Chinese.
There is a long history of resentment of minority ethnic Chinese who are often seen as having a disproportionate share of Indonesia's wealth.
Indonesia is officially a secular state and campaigning on religious grounds is prohibited, but there are concerns that the way the issue has been used in the Jakarta election could be a further sign of deepening politicization of Islam.
But some analysts doubt the issue has been decisive.
"The people of Jakarta need changes. I don't care if one of the candidates is ethnic Chinese. The important thing is that he can make a change for Jakarta," said Refy Zaky as he voted in Kabon Kacang, central Jakarta.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)