SOFIA, BULGARIA -- The Central Committee building is a fun place nowadays.
In the piazza outside what for decades had been the most forbidding edifice in the land, there is a cafe where Bulgarian punks with earrings and spiky hair sit alongside wrinkled partisans from the war that brought Communists to power here in 1945. Nearby loudspeakers bathe them each afternoon in rock music.
Inside, the Central Committee building has been decked in pastel colors, and attractive young women with have-a-nice-day smiles explain that the evening's movie -- "Sex, Lies and Videotape" -- will be playing downstairs after dinner. A color computer monitor reminds visitors of coming campaign appearances by the friendly reform Communists who want to build a better Bulgaria.
The new logo for the Communists, who have tossed out the hammer and sickle and renamed themselves Socialists for next month's election, is a happy-faced, rosy-cheeked boy giving the thumbs-up signal. Cartoon drawings of Karl Marx's bearded face adorn the walls. The caption says, "Marx Is Dead." But Karl himself suggests otherwise. The cartoon has him opening an incredulous eye and asking, "Really?"
Democracy in Bulgaria seems to be traveling a road different from the rest of Eastern Europe.
Unlike neighboring Romania, where campaigners in last Sunday's election traded punches and wild charges, the Bulgarian election season has been well organized and relatively gentlemanly.
And unlike Hungary, Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the reform Communists in this country of 9 million people have good reason to believe that they will not be wiped out at the polls come June 10.
The National Opinion Research Center's latest poll, the reliability of which may be subject to question, gives the reform Communists a large lead over the Union of Democratic Forces, an opposition umbrella group. In small towns, many of the best-educated, most energetic candidates are party members.
"Under no conditions will the Communists be humiliated like in other parts of Eastern Europe," said one Western diplomat.
With their new, kinder, gentler image, their attractive candidates and their strength in the polls, some party leaders have even expressed a fear of winning too big a victory in the election.
"It would not be very good if we did too well," said Chavdar Kuranov, a new member of the party's ruling Supreme Council. "Then maybe internal changes in the party structure would come much slower."
Other leaders have said they would like the party only to do well enough to become a strong partner in a coalition government with the opposition. Winning the election outright, they have said privately, might relegate Bulgaria to the end of what has become a long East European line of debt-ridden, industrially backward and environmentally poisoned countries seeking help from the capitalist West.
The reasons why reform Communists in this small Balkan nation are not in danger of extinction include traditional pro-Russian sympathies among the populace, a relatively high level of technocratic competence among new party leaders and deep divisions in the opposition.
Widespread recent publicity about government concentration and labor camps, which operated here from 1944 to 1962 and led to the death of an estimated 20,000 "politically inconvenient" people, does not appear to have significantly sullied the reform party's image.
The opposition, in fact, admits that campaign posters and advertisements focusing on excavated skulls and bones may have been too "negative" for Bulgarian tastes.
In Bulgaria, unlike Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary, socialism has not been seen as a totally foreign ideology imposed by hated Soviet occupiers. In 1878, the Russian army helped end 500 years of Turkish rule here.
Political observers ranging from career Communists to American diplomats speak of a strong egalitarian streak in the Bulgarian character that is intolerant of conspicuous wealth of the kind often associated with prewar capitalism.
"Our party has made some terrible mistakes, but the benefits of communism -- such as roads, electricity, apartments, jobs in industry -- are much clearer to the Bulgarian population than, say, in a country like East Germany," said Supreme Council member Kuranov. "The East Germans always had the image of a prosperous West Germany to look at. Bulgarians only had the image of prewar Bulgaria. Believe me, that was not very exciting."
Recent polls show that the five most popular politicians in the country are reform Communists. The most popular is President Petar Mladenov, the former foreign minister who led November's palace coup that ended the 35-year-rule of Todor Zhivkov. Zhivkov is under house arrest and will be tried after the election on charges of corruption and misuse of power.
The second most popular politician is Andrei Lukanov, the multi-lingual prime minister who speaks eloquently and often about his commitment to free-market change. Opposition leaders have said Lukanov deserves an important position in a new government, even if the reform Communists are defeated. The most visible opposition leader, a philosopher and writer named Zhelu Zhelev, only ranks sixth in the polls.
A telling measure of how weak the opposition perceives itself to be came in a statement last month by Petko Simeonov, a key opposition strategist. He said that Communists should retain control of the ministries of internal affairs and defense, no matter who wins the election.
Members of the Union of Democratic Forces, a coalition of 16 opposition parties, range from anti-Communists who demand a total purge of the government to left-leaning former Communists who quit the party only this year. Many observers say they expect the coalition, which draws its strongest support from intellectuals and professionals in Sofia, to fall apart after the election.
The economic program of the opposition differs principally in the greater speed with which it promises to initiate free-market change.
Whoever wins the June elections faces the daunting task of rebuilding a collapsing industrial economy, cursed with worsening shortages of such basic consumer goods as sugar and meat. The government was forced this year, for the first time, to default on debt payments. Bulgaria's debt is estimated at $12 billion -- second highest per capita in Eastern Europe only to Hungary. It must be generously rescheduled for Bulgaria to have any chance of climbing out of its economic hole.
While the reform Communists have spoken frequently about their commitment to free-market reform, they have done little to demonstrate it. Most prices remain controlled and the party's new land policy -- in a clear expression of Marxist philosophy -- explicitly forbids property owners from leasing land to farmers.
Opposition leaders insist that the extent of popular disaffection with the reform Communists has been grossly underestimated.
Simeonov said "we are not to be blamed for what happened in Bulgaria. They are guilty and they are smiling. Voters will decide for themselves if this is cynicism."