Catalan volunteers labour to make breakaway vote count

Barcelona (AFP) - With see-through ballot boxes and dozens of electoral workers milling around, the Maristas school in Barcelona is a polling station like any other, with one difference: this vote is forbidden.

In other respects, the volunteers at this school near the city's iconic Sagrada Familia Cathedral -- along with 40,000 others across the region -- are doing things by the book.

Spain's government mounted legal challenges to Catalonia's independence vote on Sunday, putting the volunteers running the 6,700 polling stations in a delicate spot.

That didn't put off Lluis Peiro, a 51-year-old engineer, who wove around supervising among dozens of voters at the polling station in this working class district.

Even though "they tried to put a thousand and one obstacles in our way", he says, he dutifully turned up to help carry out the vote as credibly as possible.

The vote may only be a symbolic one, expected to draw only those favouring independence, but the organisation is meticulous.

Peiro is one of 33 volunteers -- three for each ballot box -- running this polling station, overseen by four coordinators who, in turn, answer to two higher officials.

Spanish authorities warned the Catalan regional government it would be breaking the law if it defied court injunctions banning it from organising a vote.

But it has stood by the volunteers, sending out a laptop computer to each polling station for them to log voters, along with the ballot boxes and voting slips.

Those turning up to cast their votes, after finding their local polling station via a special website, have their names noted by hand on arriving and also entered into the computer.

"Once you have voted here, you cannot vote anywhere else," Peiro said.

Organisers planned to have the premises all clear of voting material once voting ended in the evening, so as not to disrupt school the next day.

- Posing while voting -

At the Maristas school, Fernando Brea, a regional government official, dropped by on a tour of polling stations.

"It is all going calmly," he told AFP. "As in any election, there are incidents -- a volunteer missing here or a ballot box there."

State prosecutors said they were gathering evidence to see whether Catalan authorities had breached court injunctions by opening polling stations and mailing campaign material.

"The police are nowhere to be seen. All you can see are citizens, which is the main thing," said Brea, however.

"The most important thing is the turnout."

Like a regular vote, Catalonia's also has international observers: a delegation of eight members of parliament from European countries who arrived on Saturday.

Hundreds of leaflets urging Catalans to vote were distributed in the past few days and lists of voting stations were posted on the doors of public buildings in central Barcelona.

In rural areas, buses were laid on to take the elderly to cast their votes, said the Catalan National Assembly, the leading pro-independence lobby.

In one of the few incidents reported, police arrested five people for damaging ballot boxes and causing unspecified injuries after bursting into a polling station in the northern Catalan district of Girona.

In one demonstration against the vote, protesters in Barcelona set fire to a Catalan independence flag. In Madrid, a few dozen waved Spanish and Catalan flags and sang patriotic songs.

At most polling stations, a jovial atmosphere reigned.

Groups of voters posed for photographs as they dropped their ballots into the box, some of them wearing traditional red Catalan berets called barratinas.

"I am here because I am Catalan, full stop," said Encarna Garcia Pron, a retired nurse, who turned up to vote leaning on a walking frame. "We have to make ourselves a homeland."