By Ranga Sirilal and Douglas Busvine
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka held a parliamentary election on Monday in which ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa was trying to stage a political comeback, as the leader who toppled him in January manoeuvred to block his path back to power.
The nationalist strongman has set his sights on becoming premier of a government led by his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). But the former ally who beat him at the polls, President Maithripala Sirisena, now leads the party and rules that out.
Their bitter power struggle has overshadowed the election on the Indian Ocean island of 20 million people, which has a history of political feuding that has often spilled over into violence and even the assassination of its leaders.
Seeking to head off pressure to name Rajapaksa premier should he win an overwhelming mandate, Sirisena fired two dozen members of the SLFP's executive committee who had been loyal to his predecessor.
The decision, made after voting ended, drew a swift response from the Rajapaksa camp: "This action is not democratic, neither is it constitutional," Dinesh Gunawardene, a senior ally of the ex-president, told Reuters.
With no exit polls available, first trends were expected from counting overnight and final results due on Tuesday. Turnout, estimated by observers at 65 percent, was below that of the historic presidential poll but higher than five years ago.
BREAK WITH PAST
Sirisena, in a cross-party alliance with a government led by the United National Party (UNP), has sought to break with the past by passing reforms to weaken his own presidency and make the government more open and accountable.
Some voters in Colombo said they were casting their ballots for reconciliation and good governance, showing sympathy for the UNP of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
"I came to vote to have just and fair governance ... for people to live like humans," lawyer Rushdi Halid told Reuters.
Minority Tamils and Muslims have rallied behind the UNP-led alliance, which pundits say has the best chance of forming the largest bloc in the 225-seat parliament.
Wickremesinghe, wearing white shirtsleeves and grey slacks as he waded through a pack of reporters to vote in Colombo, said he was confident of beating Rajapaksa.
"He has lost already," he said. "I haven't got to worry any more about Mahinda Rajapaksa – in a free and fair election, we can hold him."
Rajapaksa, in a blue silk shirt and white sarong, voted in his southern home district before being blessed by chanting Buddhist monks and laying flowers at a memorial to his parents.
"We will win, that is certain," Rajapaksa said.
The burly 69-year-old is revered as a war hero by many of Sri Lanka's Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority for crushing a 26-year Tamil uprising in 2009. Opponents accuse him of running a corrupt, brutal and dynastic regime - charges he denies.
"We need development, to live without fear of war, a country without bomb explosions," said Shanthi Bandara, a 52-year-old Colombo housewife who backed Rajapaksa.
Sirisena quit Rajapaksa's government last year to run against him, pulling off a stunning victory in the Jan. 8 presidential election.
Yet he has moved only belatedly to assert his control over the SLFP and thwart the ambitions of his erstwhile ally and party rival to become Sri Lanka's next prime minister.
Sirisena, 63, used his power to suspend the general secretaries of the party and its poll alliance, both Rajapaksa men, just before the election.
That decision was challenged by the SLFP's executive committee. In response, Sirisena on Monday fired 25 committee members who were loyal to Rajapaksa, according to both camps.
The manoeuvring could determine whether or not Sirisena can form a unity government comprising Wickremesinghe's centre-right alliance and his own supporters from the SLFP, sending Rajapaksa to the opposition benches.
(Additional reporting by Sunil Kataria and Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Kevin Liffey)