Fallen German conservative star ready for comeback

Thu Nov 24, 2011 10:19am EST

* Ex-defence minister Guttenberg hints of comeback

* Went into self-imposed U.S. exile

* Carefully orchestrated return after disgrace?

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN, Nov 24 (Reuters) - A disgraced former German defence minister with aspirations to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted on Thursday he was ready to come back from a self-imposed exile after prosecutors dropped a plagiarism investigation.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, 39, was once the German conservatives' brightest star but quit abruptly in March after admitting to copying parts of his doctoral dissertation. He dropped out of sight and moved to the United States.

Admitting in his first major interview in eight months that he made "the biggest mistake of my life", Guttenberg dismissed speculation that a ghostwriter had actually authored his dissertation. He said he yearned to return to German politics.

"There's no doubt whatsoever that I'm a political animal, a 'zoon politicon'," he told Die Zeit newspaper in what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated comeback after eight months away from the spotlight.

Timed to coincide with the release of a "mea culpa" book entitled "Vorest Gescheitert" (Stymied for the Time Being), Guttenberg added it was still an "open question" about whether he would pursue a "political engagement".

He said he did not want to rule out running again for his old seat in parliament in the next election in 2013 -- he won his Bavarian district with a record 68.1 percent of the vote in 2009. Asked if he were leaving all options open, he said: "Yes."

Guttenberg's first comments since his humiliating exit in March instantly sparked calls in Germany for a speedy comeback. Many had expected him to stay in the United States at a defence think tank for a period of several years -- as other tainted German politicians have done in the past to clear their names.

The leader of Guttenberg's Christian Social Union (CSU), Horst Seehofer, said he hopes the man who became the darling of the conservatives -- who also made a first public appearance at a security conference in Canada at the weekend -- would return now that prosecutors dropped their investigation.

CONSERVATIVES WANT HIM BACK

"He belongs to us and we want him," Seehofer said.

Guttenberg was sporting a new appearance at the security conference -- without the spectacles and thick hair gel that had been his trademark.

The state prosecutors office in Hof said there were 23 passages that Guttenberg copied for his dissertation but said the copyright violations had a "marginal" economic impact.

Guttenberg agreed to donate 20,000 euros to charity. The case was then dropped by prosecutors, meaning Guttenberg will not have a criminal record.

"A big mistake was that I didn't admit to myself that I was overwhelmed," Guttenberg said, blaming sloppiness and negligence rather than malice or premeditation. "There was a certain amount of arrogance and vanity. It was a lethal combination."

Before the scandal erupted in February, Guttenberg was by far the most popular member of Merkel's cabinet. He first dismissed the charges as "fanciful", but after more copied passages were discovered he was stripped of his doctorate.

The aristocratic Guttenberg's popularity was based in part on his carefully nurtured image for honest and integrity. Although he was expected to return to German politics at some point, it is unclear whether the public is ready yet.

A call-in poll by all-news network N-TV said 71 percent would welcome a Guttenberg to return to German politics. But others were sceptical. "I thought he wanted to spend a year in the United States for reflection," said Renate Kuenast, a leader of the opposition Greens party in parliament. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)