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Sri Lanka holding first post-war parliament poll

Sri Lankans vote in the first parliamentary election since the end of a quarter-century war last year, in a poll likely to further entrench President Mahinda Rajapaksa's political dominance.

Nearly 80,000 police and soldiers have been deployed across the Indian Ocean island to guard polling stations, where voters will decide who from among 7,620 candidates will serve in the 225-member parliament.

Rajapaksa has already parlayed last May's victory over the Tamil Tiger separatists into a new six-year term, and is now banking on a resurgent economy and political momentum to give his United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) a legislative majority.

More than 14 million people were registered to vote at polling stations s that open at 7 a.m.. Campaigning has been calm by Sri Lankan standards, with one death and 340 violent acts reported.

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 central bank this week reported GDP growth of 3.5% last year, and forecast 6.5% this year.

Rajapaksa's alliance has positioned itself as the shepherd of island-wide development and an economic revival, propelled by a stock market that has gained more than 150% since 2009 and foreign investment in 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.

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% against 40% for retired General Sarath Fonseka, his former war ally whom the opposition backed after he split with the president.

Fonseka after the election 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 is running for parliament and remains an opposition rallying cry.

He denies wrongdoing and says he is a political prisoner.

One national issue that has taken a subordinate role in campaigns has been ethnic reconciliation.

The war deeply divided the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority from which Rajapaksa hails, like all of the country's leaders since independence from Britain in 1948.

Tamil parties have been able to campaign unhindered for the first time since the end of the war, now that the Tigers are no longer there to dictate who runs.

Rajapaksa says economic development and democracy in all areas are the solution.

However opposition parties say that rings hollow because Rajapaksa's administration stifles dissent and the media. The government denies that and accuses the opposition of currying favor with Western governments that want to undermine Sri Lanka.

Rights group and Western governments say the government has been involved with, or turned a blind eye to, rights violations against critics including kidnapping, arrests and even killings. (Reuters)