By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankans voted on Thursday in an election likely to further entrench President Mahinda Rajapaksa's political dominance, the first parliamentary poll since last year's end of a quarter-century of war.
Nearly 80,000 police and soldiers guarded polling stations across the Indian Ocean island, where voters culled 7,620 candidates to fill the 225-member parliament. Election monitors reported a few minor violent incidents.
Turnout was between 50-55 percent, monitors said. If confirmed, that would make Thursday's turnout the lowest of all 20 national polls since 1947, when then-Ceylon elected its first parliament to prepare for independence from Britain the next year.
The Election Commission said it would only release an official turnout figure with the final tally, expected on Friday. Rajapaksa has already parlayed last May's victory over the Tamil Tiger separatists into a new six-year term. Now he is banking on a resurgent economy and political momentum to give his United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) a legislative majority.
The end of the electoral uncertainty is expected to bring some stability to Sri Lanka's post-war landscape, and give way to a clearer picture of what Rajapaksa plans to do with a $42 billion economy billed as an upcoming frontier market.
The Colombo Stock Exchange on Thursday closed higher into record territory. It has gained 165 percent since 2009, spurred by the end of the war and lately by hopes of political stability and macroeconomic reform after the polls.
'FIRE UNDER ASHES'
Rajapaksa cast his ballot early at a school named after his politician father in Medamulana, in the southern Hambantota district where his eldest son, brother and niece were all contesting seats as part of a growing Rajapaksa dynasty.
"We've ended terrorism now. What fire is under the ashes? We need to unite the broken hearts of this country through development," he told reporters.
"That can be done only through a stronger parliament. We've already shown in this short time what we are able to do with economic and other developments."
The war deeply divided the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority from which Rajapaksa hails, like all the country's post-independence leaders. He says reconciliation can only come from democracy and development.
Rajapaksa's alliance has positioned itself as the shepherd of island-wide development and an economic revival, propelled by the stock market and sizeable foreign investment in high-yield government securities.
With the rupee currency on the rise, bond dealers say they expect steady foreign demand for government securities of 18 months' tenure or less to pick up, especially after the vote.
The central bank this week reported GDP growth of 3.5 percent last year, and forecast 6.5 percent this year.
The government has said it will address a high fiscal deficit, the country's main economic problem, through reforms under a $2.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan signed in July which boosted investor confidence.
PRESIDENT WANTS 2/3 MAJORITY
Rajapaksa and his allies are aiming to win 150 seats, or the two-thirds majority he needs to change the constitution -- though he has not made public his intended amendments.
The opposition has vowed to block that, saying it would threaten democracy by giving him even more vast powers than he now has.
Rajapaksa, 64, in January polled 58 percent against 40 percent for retired General Sarath Fonseka, his former war ally whom the opposition backed after he split with the president.
After the election Fonseka said the government had robbed him of victory, although monitors said there was no evidence of that. He was later arrested after being accused of plotting a coup.
Though still in military custody facing two courts-martial for politicking in uniform and improper procurement, Fonseka contested for parliament. He denies wrongdoing.
TAMILS VOTE FREELY
Tamil parties have been able to campaign in the formerly rebel-held areas for the first time without the Tamil Tigers dictating at gunpoint who could contest, whom people could vote for and even whether they could vote or boycott polls altogether.
"We voted this time with many hopes. First we want to return to our village and we want a new home there, a good school for the children, good drinking water," refugee Sellaiya Ranjaneedevi told Reuters in Vavuniya.
However, election monitors reported that some government supporters blocked buses that were to carry thousands of war refugees to polls from the camps they live in northern Sri Lanka.
Opposition parties say Rajapaksa's administration stifles dissent and the media, and intimidates people in Tamil areas with a heavy security presence and possibly armed proxies.
The government denies that as propaganda from Tiger supporters in the diaspora, and accuses the opposition of currying favor with Western governments that want to undermine Sri Lanka and get Rajapaksa out of power.
(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal in Medamulana and Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Editing by Sugita Katyal and Jerry Norton)