Friday's parliamentary election - the third in four years - was also one of the calmest in years with fears of violence
and fraud largely unfounded, poll monitors said after voting
ended.

Amid tight security, election officials said about three-quarters of the more than 12 million eligible voters are believed to have cast ballots, including Tamils living in rebel-controlled areas.

Pre-election opinion polls showed neither the ruling United National Party (UNP) nor the United People's Freedom Alliance winning a majority.

Final results for the 6000 candidates battling for 225 parliament seats are not expected until Saturday.

Feuding leaders

The election was called nearly four years early by President Chandrika Kumaratunga after a political feud escalated between her and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Although Wickremesinghe signed a ceasefire with the Tigers two years ago, the president - who is elected separately -accuses him and the UNP of being too soft on the Tigers.

Voters said they were anxious for the ceasefire to continue.

It has been the longest period of peace since the minority Tamils began fighting for an independent homeland in the island's north and east in 1983. More than 64,000 people died in the conflict.
 
During the two years of calm, the economy has rebounded from years of stagnation and tourist arrivals have increased.

Peace and economy

Wickremesinghe voted at a polling station in central Colombo. 

Sri Lankan PM Wickremesinghe
was confident on election day

"I'm very confident. The peace is the most important issue, the economy itself is linked to the peace," he said.

Peace talks to permanently end the war broke down a year ago, but the truce has held.

Officials said prospects for a free vote had already been marred by violence and intimidation in the Tamil majority north and east.

But many Tamils living in rebel controlled areas voted for the first time since the civil war began.

They are likely to have voted for a rebel-backed party that could hold the key to forming the next government if forecasts of a deadlocked parliament come true. 

Fragile alliances
 
It is the first time the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has endorsed a party, throwing its intimidating weight behind the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

But that could also complicate matters if a government had to rely on the TNA for power while negotiating with the Tigers to permanently end the war.

The other significant minority party in the house could be a Sinhala Buddhist party running an all-monk group of candidates. Projected to win between four and nine seats, they would be more likely to back the Freedom Alliance.
 
The election has also been overshadowed in recent weeks by a split in the Tigers, with a strong eastern commander challenging the movement's leaders in the north.

Despite several election-related murders, the campaign has been relatively peaceful. More than 70 were killed in the December 2001 campaign.