JAKARTA, INDONESIA — When 7 million Jakartans vote for the governor of one of emerging Asia’s most important but worst-run run cities on Wednesday, the key issue will be a mustache.

Opponents of the facial-hair-sporting incumbent, Fauzi Bowo, have adopted the unofficial slogan “no mustache,” which they say is Indonesian shorthand for “Stop being messy, dirty and poor.”

In one of the world’s most densely populated cities, where a third are without access to piped water, traffic jams and pollution are ubiquitous and there is no metro system, residents have good reason to want change.

Jakarta is a major engine of growth for Indonesia, which has been expanding at about 6 percent a year for the past five years. But, mirroring the rest of the country, the capital’s poor infrastructure has deterred foreign investors. Even though Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, many international companies prefer to locate their regional headquarters elsewhere.

The governor of Jakarta is one of the most important directly elected positions in Indonesia’s heavily decentralized system, with wide-ranging powers over transport, health and education and an annual budget of about $3.8 billion.

Political parties and analysts also see the contest as a key battleground ahead of the presidential election in 2014, when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will step down after serving the maximum two terms.

Bowo, a German-trained planning official who represents Yudhoyono’s Democrat party, is the clear frontrunner, according to political observers, because of his roots in Jakarta, his extensive and well-financed political network and his power base as a local bureaucrat.

But even supporters such as Firdaus Ibon, a 35-year-old car salesman, concede that Bowo — or Foke as he is known — needs to do much more to deal with the city’s interminable traffic jams and habitual floods.

But at an election rally that blends loud Indonesian pop music, Islamic prayers and dancers in “I love the moustache” T-shirts, he insists “only Foke can resolve our problems as he understands our city”.

Indonesia may be the world’s third-biggest democracy after India and the U.S. but genuine electoral politics are still developing 14 years after Suharto, the country’s long-time dictator, was ousted.

Leading the pack of five rivals to Bowo is Joko Widodo, the reform-minded mayor of Solo, a medium-size city about 370 miles east of Jakarta, who has built a reputation for efficient, fair and clean government – rare in a country where 17 out of 33 provincial governors have been investigated for corruption.

Supporters such as Tofani Moeniz, a 52-year-old office worker, say Jokowi, as he is known, has a good record – from the construction of one of Indonesia’s first modern tram systems to his smooth handling of the relocation of street vendors. He has been selected as one of 25 finalists in a contest to find the world’s best mayors.

“Jokowi is experienced, smart and has integrity,” says Moeniz, shouting over a band playing Widodo’s favored rock music at a rally attended by thousands of people wearing the red-checked shirts that are his campaign trademark. “Jakarta needs that kind of leader rather than Fauzi Bowo who has launched a lot of projects that are going nowhere.”

While Bowo’s team questions whether Widodo can recreate his regional success in the capital, the Solo mayor’s supporters contrast his plucky outsider status with the flashy complacency of Bowo, who was revealed to own a Harley-Davidson motorbike, a Hummer SUV and a Van Gogh painting during the pre-election vetting process.

Local polling organizations are predicting Bowo will come in first on Wednesday, but he will not secure the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a September run-off.

Whoever triumphs, the outcome will give some clues as to the lay of the wider political landscape.

Widodo is backed by both the Democratic Party of Indonesia-Struggle (PDI-P), headed by former president and possible future presidential candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri, and the Great Indonesia Movement party of Prabowo Subianto, a former Suharto son-in-law and frontrunner for the presidency.

“The Jakarta election is something of a barometer for the national elections in 2014,” says Douglas Ramage, an expert on Indonesia politics and foreign investment consultant. “It tells us that conservative parties like PDI-P can go out of their comfort zone, selecting genuinely reform-minded candidates like Jokowi.”

But Faisal Basri, an economist and one of two independent Jakarta gubernatorial candidates, urges caution about the potential for sweeping change.

“Jakarta can be the entry point for building a better Indonesia,” he says. “But our country is controlled by a very limited number of people and we have to fight the oligarchy and political dynasties if we want to move forward.”

— Financial Times