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Jakarta elections: Voting begins amid governor blasphemy trial

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People across many parts of Indonesia are voting for local and provincial leaders

Residents of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, are voting for a new governor, in an election overshadowed by the incumbent’s blasphemy trial.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok”, is the first Christian and ethnic Chinese leader of the majority Muslim city in more than 50 years.

He is on trial for insulting Islam, after he accused his opponents of using the Koran to mislead voters.

Tens of millions of Indonesians will also be voting in regional elections.

Voting started at 07:00 local time in elections for the leaders of seven provinces, 18 cities and for the local leaders of 76 districts.

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The capital has seen huge rallies against the governor

The election in Jakarta is seen as a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. About 85% of the population are Muslim, but the country officially respects six religions.

It is Mr Purnama’s first electoral test as governor, a role he stepped into from the deputy position in 2014 when then-governor Joko Widodo became president.

He was seen as the favourite to win – and as a potential future president – until he was charged with blasphemy in late 2016, a criminal offence in Indonesia.

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“Ahok” is known for his checked shirts, often also worn by supporters

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The full results of the election are not expected until the end of the month

The case centres on comments he made to voters in pre-campaigning, advising them not to be fooled by religious leaders who told them Muslims should not be governed by a non-Muslim.

When his trial opened in late December, Mr Purnama denied blasphemy, saying his comments were aimed at politicians “incorrectly” using the Koran against him. If convicted, he faces a maximum five-year jail sentence.

Security is high in the capital, which has seen repeated angry protests against the governor, led by the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

At the scene: Rebecca Henschke, BBC News, Jakarta

It’s a local election that feels like a presidential election, and voters here say stakes are high.

There were queues at the polling station near Ahok’s house, where Minarni voted. She said that she normally didn’t bother to vote but this time it was different.

“Everyone really cares about this election, it’s a such a decisive moment for the future,” she said.

Governor Ahok’s main rival, Anies Baswedan, has been accused of playing the race and religion card.

After voting, he told reporters the decision was now in the hands of God. “We believe that everything is decided by Allah, and we will now pray. And we trust in God that we will give Jakarta a just and great leader.”

At one polling station, we overheard people telling those queuing to make sure they “vote for a Muslim”, before being warned by officials not to intimidate voters.

Despite the trial, Mr Purnama remains popular with many of the capital’s residents, for favouring greater access to education and healthcare, as well as efforts to improve the traffic-clogged city’s public transport.

He has been credited with tackling corruption and turning a large red-light district into a park.

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“Ahok” still has widespread support despite his recent woes

But he has also been criticised for forced evictions of riverbank slums, to combat flooding and pollution. And he has offended officials with his brusque style, though YouTube videos of him berating them for doing a bad job were a hit with the public.

He has the backing of President Joko Widodo’s party.

The blasphemy case has benefitted his main rivals, who are both Muslims.

Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, 38, is a former army major and the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, while Anies Baswedan, 47, is a former education minister.

Official results will not be announced until later this month. But the election will likely go to a second round in May as no candidate is expected to secure the required 50% of the vote.

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