COLOMBO (AFP) Counting was underway Friday in Sri Lankan parliamentary polls that were expected to deliver a comfortable win for President Mahinda Rajapakse`s ruling party and consolidate his grip on power.
With the opposition divided and his main political rival behind bars, Rajapakse had urged voters to give his party a two-thirds majority, allowing him to amend the constitution that currently limits the president to two terms.
For many Sri Lankans, it was the first legislative election in which they could vote without fear of Tamil Tiger violence and suicide attacks after the rebels were defeated last year ending three decades of conflict.
Rajapakse called Thursday`s polls two months early after his resounding re-election victory in a presidential vote in January, which was closely followed by the arrest of the defeated opposition candidate -- former army chief Sarath Fonseka.
`I want a very strong parliament to develop the country,` the president told reporters as he cast his ballot in a southern constituency where his son Namal was the ruling party candidate.
While Rajapakse`s United People`s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) should have no trouble securing more than half the 225 seats in parliament, Sri Lanka`s system of proportional representation makes a two-thirds majority unlikely.
Rajapakse`s nationalistic rhetoric appeals to his majority Sinhalese community, but has been criticised by rights groups who accuse him of cronyism and suppressing dissent.
As well as his son, the president`s two brothers were also on the ballot list, as was Fonseka despite the fact that he is in military custody and undergoing court martial.
Opposition parties were largely united behind Fonseka in his campaign for the presidency, but they lost cohesion after his arrest and came into the parliamentary election with little hope of victory.
Turnout appeared to be considerably lower than in the presidential election when 75 percent of the electorate voted.
Despite the defeat of the Tigers, security was tight Thursday, with 20,000 troops on duty to reinforce police at polling stations around the country.
The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) reported a shoot-out between a group of opposition and government supporters in the island`s south early Thursday, but nobody was hurt.
There were also numerous reports of pro-government supporters intimidating voters, said CMEV spokesman D.M. Dissanayake.
The main opposition United National Party (UNP) has accused the government of using state-owned vehicles and buildings for campaigning and turning the government-run media into a party mouthpiece.