By Alberto Dabo
BISSAU, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Voters in Guinea-Bissau went to the polls on Sunday in a parliamentary election donors hope will restore stability in a small West African state prostrated by poverty and threatened by international drug-traffickers.
Electoral officials and foreign observers said voting at most polling stations went ahead generally smoothly in the capital Bissau and across the former Portuguese colony, which has a population of 1.6 million and close to 580,000 voters.
"The turnout is quite high," Johan Van Hecke, head of a European Union observer mission, told reporters.
Voters were electing 100 national assembly deputies from more than 20 parties and coalitions in the country's fourth multi-party elections since a one-party state was dismantled in 1991.
Four parties were expected to dominate, including the former liberation movement, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which had ruled alone for 17 years after winning independence from Portugal in 1974.
Guinea-Bissau, whose main exports are cashew nuts and fish, has a history of coups and mutinies since independence. In recent years it has become the target of Colombian drugs gangs who use its islands, coast and interior for smuggling cocaine to Europe.
Western donors, worried about the risk of Guinea-Bissau becoming a lawless "narco-state", hope a stable government emerges with which they can work to fight poverty and implement security reforms.
A previous ruling coalition between the major parties collapsed in the summer amid reports of a navy-led coup plot.
Many voters were looking for more basic needs to be met.
"I hope my country can find stability again, so that civil servants can be paid regularly and children can go to school," said Mariama Mane, who voted in the capital Bissau.
Guinea-Bissau, languishing near the bottom of the U.N.'s human development rankings, is in the grips of a cholera epidemic that has killed well over 200 people in recent months.
During campaigning in the cashew- and rice-farming communities of the interior and in the dilapidated seaside capital Bissau, the leading candidates made repeated promises to fight poverty and combat drug-trafficking.
Former prime minister and PAIGC leader Carlos Gomes Junior has appealed to voters to give his party a solid majority to beat off a challenge from the newly created Republican Party for Independence and Development (PRID), led by former premier Aristides Gomes, an ally of President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira.
Also vying for votes are the Social Renewal Party (PRS), which draws its strength from the Balante ethnic group and is backed by military chiefs, and the Development, Democracy and Citizenship Party (PADEC) of former prime minister Francisco Fadul.
"We hope that the country will, after the elections, enjoy a period of relative peace and stability, that will provide an enabling environment for sustainable development," said Ade Adefuye, leading an election observer team from the West African regional group ECOWAS.
Analysts see Sunday's poll as setting the stage for the 2010 presidential election, when Vieira, who has dominated local politics for decades, will run again. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/) (Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Janet Lawrence)