Few political careers have been launched with such fury and gained so much traction as fast as that of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. In just two years, the 39-year-old aristocrat, who is married to an heir of Otto von Bismarck, rose from a virtual unknown to Germany's Defense Minister and most popular politician, loved for his honesty, honor and conservative values. It's a fittingly extraordinary twist, then, that Guttenberg's rising star has been extinguished as the result of a scandal surrounding not sex or money or some other typical form of political corruption but plagiarism. Accused of having stolen large parts of his doctoral dissertation in what has become known as the Copy, Paste Affair, Guttenberg announced his resignation as minister on Tuesday, leaving his political future uncertain and the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) devastated.
Guttenberg had all the conservative bona fides needed to restore faith among the CDU's core voters, many of whom have become disenchanted with the way Chancellor Angela Merkel has moved the party to the left and alienated several of its most talented leaders. He had become so popular for months leading a monthly ranking of German politicians that he was being touted as Chancellor material, a potential successor to Merkel. "Guttenberg was a young political star who appealed especially to ordinary German voters," Gerd Langguth, political scientist and Merkel biographer, tells TIME. Which is why Guttenberg's resignation is not only a personal setback; he also leaves Germany's Christian Democrats weakened going into three important state elections later this month.
But despite the shock of Guttenberg's exit, the Berlin political machine grinds on. On Wednesday, it was announced that Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere would replace Guttenberg at the Defense Ministry. De Maiziere, a trusted Merkel ally, was interior minister in Saxony, in eastern Germany, until the Chancellor recruited him for her government. From 2005 to 2009, de Maiziere served first as Minister for Special Assignments and then as Merkel's chief of staff. Bookish and lawyerly, he could hardly be a greater contrast to his flamboyant predecessor.
He is also competent and reliable, so he makes an obvious choice for the next Defense Minister. But his move is a little surprising because de Maiziere comes from Merkel's CDU, and according to the etiquette of German coalition politics, CDU partner the Christian Social Union, of which Guttenberg is a member, should have had the right to name a successor from its own ranks. "The choice of de Maiziere shows that the CSU is running out of qualified personnel," says Langguth.
Merkel moved swiftly to fill the gap left by Guttenberg and head off any protracted debate about whether she is decisive enough. Losing Guttenberg will hit the party hard. In Hamburg last month, Merkel's CDU was swept from power by the resurgent Social Democrats. Opinion polls show that in an upcoming election in the southwestern state of Baden Wuerttemberg, on March 27, the CDU could lose control of a state which the party has governed uninterrupted since 1953. The next federal election is still distant it's expected to be held in the autumn of 2013 but this year's round of state elections, especially the one in Baden Wuerttemberg, could have immediate and harsh consequences for Merkel.
No surprise, then, that Merkel backed Guttenberg up to the end. Keenly aware of how popular he is with conservative voters, she did not want to be seen as the one driving a knife into the back of the party's pop star. "Merkel put the state elections first," says Oskar Niedermayer, a professor at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University in Berlin. "Her main objective was to prevent [the possibility] that either she or the CDU could be seen as being responsible for Guttenberg's resignation. And she succeeded. No one is blaming Merkel."
According to a quick survey conducted on Tuesday by polling agency Infratest for public broadcaster ARD, 53% of those polled said Guttenberg made the right decision by quitting. But 44% still disagreed with his choosing to resign. And it seems his adoring public is having trouble letting him go. As soon as the news broke of his resignation, supporters established a Facebook page "Wir wollen Guttenberg zurueck" (We want Guttenberg back), and by midday Wednesday some 344,262 people "liked" the sentiment. A page set up by Guttenberg opponents got just 5,177 "like" clicks.
It's this enduring appeal that keeps people from placing bets on Guttenberg's future. What is certain is that on a personal level, the Copy, Paste Affair is not over: he may still be prosecuted for copyright infringement. Some analysts speculate that Guttenberg will duck out of the spotlight for a while, weather the legal storm that may be approaching, and then stage a glorious return. "It is not out of the question that he makes a comeback," says Langguth. "But first he must do penance."