Barcelona (AFP) - Two million Catalans turned out Sunday to vote on independence from Spain in a symbolic ballot, defying challenges from the Spanish government.
Voters of all ages lined up around the block, some applauding, as polling stations opened after weeks of tense legal wrangling with Spanish authorities.
Catalonia's vice-president Joana Ortega told reporters that 1,977,531 people had voted across the region between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm (1200 GMT), two hours before polls closed.
Ortega could not give a turnout rate since there was no formal electoral roll, but Catalan authorities said 5.4 million people were eligible to vote overall.
But Justice Minister Rafael Catala dismissed the vote, which was staged by volunteers, as "fruitless and useless".
In one of Spain's richest but most indebted regions, a long-standing yearning for independence has swelled over recent years as recession and political corruption scandals have shaken Spain.
The desire to break away has been sharpened by resistance from Madrid.
"This is an opportunity we could not miss... We have been demanding it for a very long time," said Martin Arbaizar, 16, queueing to vote in a school in Barcelona.
Spain's conservative government challenged the vote in the courts, forcing Catalan leaders to water it down from a non-binding referendum to a symbolic vote organised by volunteers.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has vowed to defend the unity of Spain as it recovers from recession, said the vote "will not have any effect".
But voters were undeterred, fired up by the independence referendum held in Scotland in September, despite most Scots voting 'no'.
"Even though it may not be official, the important thing is that they listen to us," said Arbaizar. "The more people vote, the more noise we make, the better."
- Ballot boxes vandalised -
Ortega said voting went on with "absolute normality".
Voting stations were staffed by some 41,000 volunteers.
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 district of Girona.
Proud of its distinct language and culture, Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people, accounts for nearly a fifth of Spain's economy.
Demands for greater autonomy there have been rumbling for years, but the latest bid by the region's president Artur Mas has pushed the issue further than ever before.
Ballot boxes were set up at schools and town halls even though the central government warned the regional government that it cannot use public resources for the polls.
Several political groups and lobbies opposed to independence said they had filed lawsuits against the Catalan authorities for organising the vote.
State prosecutors said they were gathering evidence to see whether Catalan authorities breached court injunctions by opening polling stations and mailing campaign material.
Mas said he and his government assumed responsiblity for the use schools and other public buildings for the vote.
"They can present lawsuits and complaints and whatever they want. I am not going to get intimidated," he said after voting at a school in Barcelona.
- Rajoy weakened -
Critics say the polls are skewed since those turning out to vote would be overwhelmingly in favour of independence.
But analysts said a strong turnout strengthens Mas's hand in trying to make the national government negotiate and weakened Rajoy.
By successfully getting the court to suspend the vote and then not enforcing its ruling, Rajoy has shown "he is not in charge", added political analyst Josep Ramoneda.
"This is going to cost him because some on the right and in business circles will see him as a spent force," he told AFP.
Mas said his government would now push for an official referendum.
"We deserve the right to vote in a definitive referendum and this is something that maybe is understood in Madrid, but if it is not understood in Madrid our will is to go on with this process," he said after casting his ballot.
The vote was "a relative victory" for independentists, said political scientist Fernando Vallespin of Madrid's Autonomous University.
"It shows that Catalans want to vote. But it is a long way from showing that they want independence," he told AFP.