For the first time in the history of Rome, 289 immigrants from a plethora of states are now fighting each other invisibly to most Romans for 24 brand-new chances to get their voices heard in the citys seats of power.

Canvassing their co-nationals in open-air markets, outside bars, on street-corners, by phone, e-mail or in the entrances of metro stations, they are working among a multiethnic electorate of some 33,000 registered immigrants to support them in unusual elections on Sunday 28 March. The majority of voters are from Asia and Europe. At stake in the elections are four seats, each of which represents a continent, on Romes central city council, and a single seat on each of its 20 municipalities. The candidates are neither affiliated with, nor under the wing of, any existing Italian political party.

The idea of bringing the citys estimated 250,000 legal immigrants into the political picture was first mooted a decade ago, but was only approved by the city council last October at the insistence of the left-wing mayor Walter Veltroni, and long after similar schemes began in Turin, Lucca and elsewhere. The mayor charged a particularly live wire councilor for ethnic affairs, Franca Eckert Coen, to oversee the process.

Everythings gone far better than expected, she exulted. We started off fearing the worst, with nobody interested. But weve ended up with a good number of candidates (some 50 for the four places on the city council) pretty evenly balanced between men and women.

The snag is that although the winning candidates, to be called auxiliary councilors or consiglieri aggiunti, will have the right to speak in the council, they will not have the right to vote.

If elected, my main challenge will be to get the ban removed and then to win immigrants the right to vote in local elections, proclaimed 40-year-old Darif Aziz from Fez in Morocco, who wants to represent Romes 6,000-strong Moroccan community in the Campidoglio. We chatted on a panoramic bluff overlooking Romes main mosque, where Aziz works as a cultural guide. The mayor shares his aim, but bills on the issue remain bogged down in parliament. After all, pointed out Aziz, weve already become sons of this city and want to play our part in things. Most Moroccans, he said, were now shopkeepers and the like.

Gabriel lontu Rusu, a Rumanian, is standing as candidate for the People of Peace (Gente di Pace) group sponsored by the S. Egidio religious community in Trastevere, on whose behalf he was doling out food parcels when interviewed. He had a more basic objection to the present system than Azizs. Although Rumanians are reportedly fast starting to overtake the 27,000 Filipinos as Romes biggest immigrant group, Rusu said he was not standing only for the Rumanian group. The 29-year-old explained: Im standing for all Romes immigrants, regardless of nationality.

Rusu learned Italian at S. Egidio and has worked for the community for some seven years as a volunteer among Romes foreigners and poor. He went on: I think it was a mistake on the part of the council to split us up by continents. Thats divide and rule. We immigrants should be all united, otherwise well get nowhere.

Ponnampeerpma Aarachchige Piyasee Ashoka from Sri Lanka has been on the warpath to get these elections going since the days of Francesco Rutelli, Veltronis predecessor as mayor. She too would be on the platforms campaigning for access to local elections, to be followed up by the right to poll in national political contests as well.

But if elected her immediate purpose and that of the two other candidates interviewed would be to improve the schooling for immigrant children in Italy. Rusu vowed he would press for easier access to kindergarten schools, even for children of parents without stay permits, while Ashoka would be badgering for council grants for each community to set up its own nursery. Aziz said he also wanted his three-year-old child to be taught what Italian food tastes like so he could approach it more easily.

Predictably, all three promised to target the questura (police headquarters) over its delays in issuing stay permits. Its inhuman, cried Ashoka. A daughter wants to leave to see her dying mother, but she cant leave because a permit takes a year to obtain, and without one, she cant come back.

All three are calling for local police stations to have cultural intermediaries to help smooth relations between officers and often non-Italian speaking immigrants.

In the meantime, talkative Ashoka lodged two clearly heart-felt gripes. One was that immigrants who work or study in the city but who are resident outside Rome from Viterbo and Naples for instance were being allowed to vote in the upcoming poll and, she protested, they should not be. The other was that nobody had offered a cent for all the campaigning going on. Its all been our own money.

WHO CAN VOTE

All of the 33,000 non-EU immigrants living, working or studying in Rome who registered to vote before 28 January 2004.

WHAT THEY CAN VOTE FOR

Each person will be able to cast one vote for a continental representative (Africa, the Americas, Asia / Oceania, Europe), and one vote for a representative in their municipality.

Example: A Sri Lankan living in the historic centre can cast one vote for a representative on the city council (not necessarily of Asian origin), and one vote for the representative (of any nationality) for the first municipalitys council.

WHERE TO VOTE

There will be 36 polling stations in the city, distributed among the

municipalities according to how many registered voters there are in that area.

WHEN TO VOTE

The elections will take place on Sunday 28 March; polling stations will be open 08.00-22.00.

HOW TO VOTE

Registered voters should receive, at the address they provided when registering, a voting card (tessera elettorale) and a letter of instruction telling them where to vote. Voters need to take the card and a valid identification document to the polling station indicated.

WHO WINS

The winner is determined by a simple majority: the candidate with the most votes for each continent and for each municipality wins. The elected councilors will remain in office until 2006; from then on, the elections for auxiliary councilors will coincide with city council and municipal elections.

For information contact the ufficio elettorale tel. 0667103877, which will be open on the day of election until 21.45.