Barcelona (AFP) – Polling opened on Sunday morning for a presidential election at crisis-hit Barcelona, where the winner will face the challenge of rebuilding the club’s finances and squad.

Voting started at 09.00 local time (0800 GMT) in an election reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

The three candidates are former president Joan Laporta, the favourite according to the Catalan press, Toni Freixa and Victor Font.

They are running to replace Josep Maria Bartomeu, who resigned in October and was briefly taken in for questioning following police raids on the club on Monday into the ‘Barcagate’ scandal which revolves around allegations that Barcelona carried out a defamation campaign against current and former players critical of club leadership. 

“These are the most important elections in the history of Barca,” Laporta told the club web site after voting.

Barcelona is in crisis on and off the field. 

In October, it announced losses of announced losses of 97 million euros ($114 million) for last season and debts that had more than doubled to 488 million euros. Star player Lionel Messi is out of contract in the summer. In the Champions League, Barcelona travel to Paris on Wednesday trailing Paris Saint-Germain  4-1 after a humiliating first-leg home loss. Form in La Liga has improved and on Saturday Barcelona climbed to second, two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid, who have two games in hand. 

In previous elections, members have cast their votes in person at the club’s Nou Camp headquarters, but because of Covid-19 members have also been allowed to apply for postal votes.

The club said that of the 110,920 members, 22,811 had applied to vote remotely.

Polling stations have also been set up in Girona, Tarragona, Tortosa and Lleida in Catalonia and in Andorra but the club said that 78,987 members had indicated they would vote, as they always have, at the Camp Nou.

Even though it began to rain in Barcelona shortly after the polls opened, the club reported on their web site at 09.45 that “the large influx of members to the stadium continues.” The club posted a photo of queueing supporters wearing masks and rubbing gel on their hands.

“Members should have no doubt about coming to vote,” said  Carles Tusquets, head of the interim management committee that has run the club since Bartomeu resigned on October 27. 

The polling will continue until 21.00 local time and the result is expected before midnight.