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The beleaguered East German Communist Party, meeting late into Friday night in a frantic attempt to avert collapse after 40 years in power, changed its name and appeared ready to choose as its new leader a young lawyer who has represented the country's largest opposition group.

Gregor Gysi, chairman of the East German Bar Association and lawyer for the New Forum opposition group, was the apparent choice of 2,800 party delegates meeting in a closed-door session at a sports complex on the edge of town.A party spokeswoman, Brigitte Zimmerman, announced shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday that Gysi was "the only candidate for the post." He was expected to be formally elected later Saturday.

She also said the party had decided by an overwhelming majority to change its formal name of Socialist Unity Party to something that may be determined at a party meeting next Saturday.

Gysi, who is in his late 30s, was one of the party's two representatives at Thursday's round-table talks with oposition and church groups that produced an agreement to hold free parliamentary elections by May 6, 1990.

Party members were in a grim mood as the meeting began.

"It's not just a question of our party -- if we destroy ourselves we destroy our country," said Herbert Kroker, the Communist official who organized the meeting.

But as the party tried to plot its future, its past leaders faced further humiliation. Former party chief Erich Honecker was formally charged Friday with illegally enriching himself with public funds, and five of his political allies were arrested on similar charges.

Prosecutors filed charges against Honecker just before the meeting began, and investigators searched his luxurious villa in the party's exclusive Wandlitz compound.

Honecker, 77, has been under house arrest since Tuesday. He was not taken into custody because he is still recovering from an August gallbladder operation, but five other senior associates, including former Premier Willi Stoph and Erick Mielke, the former leader of the despised Stasi secret police, have been arrested.