By Jean-Marc Poche

Port Louis - Voting kicked off to a peaceful start in general elections in the Indian Ocean island state of Mauritius on Sunday, with 634 candidates battling it out for 62 seats in the National Assembly.

More than 800 000 voters were called to elect their representatives by a simple majority - 60 of them in Mauritius and two on the island of Rodrigues. The 300 voting stations opened officially at 6am and were to close at 6pm.

The polls essentially pit incumbent Prime Minister Paul Berenger, who heads the outgoing government coalition of the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) and the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM), against Navin Ramgoolam, whose opposition alliance includes the Labour Party.

Both leaders predicted victory for their camps when votes are finally tallied.

Berenger predicted "a sweet victory" for the government coalition, adding that the vote was taking place peacefully despite "some friction between supporters in central Ceverne Phoenix constituency".

Meanwhile Ramgoolam expressed confidence in a national victory for his opposition coalition as well as a triumph in his Triolet constituency.

If the event of a victory for the outgoing coalition, Berenger has reached an agreement with Pravind Jugnauth, one of his partners from the MSM, under which he will hold the premiership for two and a half years, whereupon Jugnauth will take over.

Supporters of both camps belted out traditional "sega" songs to cheer on their candidates.

"There is need for change," chanted the lyrics of one song in Creole, the island's lingua franca, calling on voters to rally behind Ramgoolam. "Progress must continue," went another in support of Berenger.

The head of the regional Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) observer mission, Ajay Kumar Bramdeo, expressed satisfaction at the way the election was going.

"Everything is going smoothly," national radio quoted him as saying.

The radio reported a 25 percent turnout at about 10am, a figure similar to the last parliamentary elections in 2000.

The incumbent prime minister cast his ballot at about 10.30am at Dr Maurice Cure secondary school, about 15 kilometres south of the capital Port-Louis, where his rival was expected to vote later in the day.

Election winners will be sworn in in the country's 70-member National Assembly, with the electoral council nominating eight extra members in a so-called "best losers" system.

The election comes amid widespread concern for the Mauritian economy, which is heavily dependent on textiles and sugar, two industries which are currently in crisis.

About 40 election monitors from the parliamentary forum of the SADC, which include Angola, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, are in the country to observe the elections.

Vote counting is expected to begin on Monday. - Sapa-AFP