MUCH of Germany's political establishment sees Manfred Muller as a dangerous dinosaur.
At first glance, he doesn't look like a politician out of the Mesozoic Era. Nattily dressed and well-spoken, Mr. Muller projects the image of a competent member of the Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament. But he admits political extinction is a distinct possibility.
Muller heads the parliamentary faction of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the former East German communists. Muller and 29 other PDS representatives won seats in last October's election, but their party brings widespread scorn in Germany because of its totalitarian legacy, which included building the Berlin Wall. Chancellor Helmut Kohl routinely pillories the PDS as ''red-painted fascists.''
Like all former Soviet-bloc ruling parties, the Democratic Socialists in Germany are fighting for their future following the collapse of Communist rule in 1989. Convincing skeptics that the PDS can operate in a democratic system will be key to survival, Muller and other party leaders say.
''Nobody believes that the PDS has broken with its past,'' Muller says. ''Everybody is ready to believe [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin -- that he broke with his past. But not us.''
If the PDS survives as a ''left-oriented, democratic party'' -- as Muller claims -- it could reshape Germany's political landscape. But its disappearance could hinder efforts to establish democracy in eastern Germany after more than 60 years of totalitarianism, both Nazi and Communist.
PDS leaders admit their electoral success last October relied heavily on ''protest votes'' from eastern Germans disaffected by the economic reforms that accompanied reunification in 1990. That protest vote is expected to shrink, however, as conditions in eastern Germany improve.
The PDS will have to widen its appeal to keep its parliamentary seats in the next general election, scheduled for 1998. At a late January convention the PDS leaders moved to expand their support base, formally renouncing the vestiges of Stalinist dogma. The PDS also adopted a policy of ''constructive cooperation'' with other left-leaning parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens.
A major test for the PDS will come in elections at the port city of Bremen in May. A satisfactory result would be 2 percent or more of the vote, Muller says.
The new PDS strategy has so far brought disappointing preliminary results to party leaders. The Social Democrats and Greens have rebuffed PDS overtures. And the Kohl government remains openly hostile. ''Judging by the leadership, I cannot say the PDS is a democratic party,'' says Otto Graf Lambsdorff, honorary chairman of the Free Democratic Party, the junior party in the governing coalition.
All the same, Mr. Lambsdorff says the party stands a good chance of surviving -- though he added that the PDS could test Germany's democratic system.
German postwar economic prosperity has benefited greatly from political stability. Since 1949, Germany's three main parties -- the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Free Democrats -- have been able to form relatively stable majorities. The appearance of the Greens in the 1980s, and now the PDS, could make coalition-building more complicated.
While the PDS may crowd the political field, its presence in the Bundestag is necessary, Muller insists. ''The PDS is needed so that eastern German interests aren't ignored,'' he says.
Western German politicians are not doing a good job in making easterners feel a part of the democratic system, he says. If the PDS fails to transform, many eastern German voters may feel they have lost their outlet. Political apathy in the east is already apparent in dropping voter turnout percentages.
''If we disappear, and they [the western German political establishment] say 'the PDS lost and the east can be forgotten,' it could be dangerous for the development of democracy in the east,'' Muller says.