'Rocking Baron' has a nation dancing to his beat

He's young, aristocratic, and has a passion for AC/DC. Tony Paterson reports on the plain-speaking politician with the rock star aura who has breathed new life into Germany's election campaign
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He is married to a Von Bismarck, has 10 Christian names and a family castle that dates to the 14th century. With a background like that and his penchant for pink ties and gelled hair, Baron Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, 37, seems to qualify as the perfect German upper-class twit.

Yet appearance has proven disarmingly deceptive. For "KT", as his burgeoning fan club likes to call him, is the nation's "Rockin' Baron" and likely to be one of Chancellor Angela Merkel's biggest vote-winners in a general election this Sunday that has been dubbed the dullest on record.

Baron Guttenberg has acquired a popularity rating of around 70 per cent since becoming Germany's youngest ever economics minister last year. His direct approach, flamboyant style and favourite speech opener – "Sometimes it's important to speak from the heart" – have won him a following that is the envy of other politicians.

In the election campaign he has been appearing at rallies throughout his native Bavaria on behalf of the sister party to Ms Merkel's conservatives, the state's ruling Christian Social Union. His performances are of the kind that many pop stars would find hard to beat, and the media have likened him to a latter-day Elvis Presley.

In the town of Kronach this week, a 1,000-strong crowd of locals, young and old, sat at beer tables and waited for his arrival with near feverish anticipation. "The radio says he's going to be late", was the word whispered from table to table.

There was a sudden hush followed by rapturous applause when he finally turned up an hour late, leaping out of a huge black Audi limousine. He could have walked up the steps to the stage, but clad in an immaculate suit and tie, he made the ascent in a single flying leap. The stunt provoked an "oooooh" from the crowd that would have gone down well in a circus.

"With hindsight that jump on stage was a bit of a daring undertaking," he quipped into the microphone. "I had been expecting at least one of my party colleagues to give me a hand up," he added to peals of laughter.

A foaming tankard of Bavarian beer was thrust into his hand. He raised his glass to the crowd and drank. "They don't do beer like this in the rest of Germany," he said to more laughter. "The further north I go, all I get is a glass of mineral water."

His (by German standards) near politically incorrect behaviour has helped to make him an exotic peacock in a political world inhabited by what seem like pigeons by comparison. His performances at rallies alone have cut him out as the antithesis of Ms Merkel.

But there are other factors that have helped his meteoric rise. In Germany, the aristocracy fills the breach left by the discredited Kaisers. Baron Guttenberg and his wife, Stephanie, a direct descendant of the Prussian "Iron Chancellor", Otto von Bismarck, have been given wall-to-wall coverage in German society and gossip magazines. Pictures of Stephanie and the Guttenberg children dressed up for society events have appeared alongside those of the Rockin' Baron and his wife in jeans and combat jacket at a concert by his favourite group, AC/DC, in Munich. The Baron, readers have been told, met his wife at the Berlin Love Parade, and he is such a music fan that at parties he likes to stand in as disc jockey.

Yet it was Baron Guttenberg's politically incorrect stance over the German government's rescue of the ailing car giant Opel that is the main reason for his overnight notoriety. Last May, Ms Merkel and her cabinet met Opel representatives to discuss the prospect of the Canadian firm Magna taking a stake in the car manufacturer. Baron Guttenberg shocked cabinet colleagues by publicly stating that he opposed the idea.

In Germany, where the car lobby almost controls the government, his "no" amounted to near treason. But it was welcomed by a public alarmed at the extent to which the Merkel government appeared to rush to the aid of the big companies during a recession, but take little notice of smaller firms.

"Guttenberg is seen as an independent figure. He stands up for small business," is how Manfred Güllner, head of Germany's Forsa public opinion research group, explains his popularity.

At his rallies, Baron Guttenberg's pledges to help smaller companies, reduce taxes and allow the state to intervene only as much as is needed are no different from the promises made by Ms Merkel and the rest of her conservatives. But in an election becoming famous for its tediousness, it is style, delivery and humour that have come to count for much, if not everything.

As Germany's Der Spiegel magazine pointed out: "Zu Guttenberg is a hero because he did something that ought to be normal in a democracy. He said no. Nobody dares do this under Merkel. His no is so remarkable because everyone says yes."

Baron Guttenberg likes to joke at his rallies that if he continues to behave with such independence, he will have "a lot of time after 27 September" to consider whether his "no" was right. However, in reality, after the election, he is likely to be in a position to choose his ministry. And some have suggested that he would someday be a suitable replacement for Angela Merkel herself.