SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) _ Bulgaria's center-right government faced an election test today, going up against the country's socialist party in voting for thousands of local government posts.

Polls opened this morning across the country for Bulgaria's nearly 7 million eligible voters. They close tonight, and the first results are not expected before Monday.

A majority of voters are expected to support the existing reformist government, the Union of Democratic Forces.

Following a political crisis after the collapse of communism, the country's general elections in April 1997 voted Ivan Kostov's reformist government into office. With a stable majority in parliament _ 137 out of 240 seats _ the government introduced a series of unpopular and often painful measures, including spending cuts, layoffs and tax increases.

But Wednesday's recommendation of the European Union Commission to start membership talks with Bulgaria is seen by the government as an endorsement of its policy and a strong show of support prior to the elections.

A survey conducted this week by the MBMD polling agency gave the Union of Democratic Forces 40 percent of the vote and the Bulgarian Socialist Party 21 percent. If the forecast proves correct, this would mean a crushing defeat for the former communists in their usual stronghold _ the small towns and villages in the countryside.

In the previous local elections in 1995, the Socialist Party of former communists won 194 mayoral seats and the Union of Democratic Forces a mere 15. Three other parties also gained seats.

This year's pre-election campaigns turned bitter in some areas of Bulgaria, with physical attacks on mayoral candidates, threats, bombings and even one killing. During voting today, some 10,000 observers from local nongovernment groups were watching for possible violations, and the Council of Europe has sent eight observers.

It takes over 50 percent of all votes to elect a mayor. Otherwise, the front-runner and his closest rival go to a second ballot on Oct. 23.