Merkel’s Latest Pandemic Challenge: Leading as a Lame Duck

BERLIN — What a difference a year makes.

In late March 2020, Chancellor Angela Merkel was winning praise the world over for her ability to explain the science behind the coronavirus pandemic and galvanize Germany’s state leaders to line up behind a nationwide strategy founded in testing and contact-tracing that held the number of deaths at bay.

Today, Ms. Merkel finds herself apologizing to the public for a confusing, ever-changing set of regulations and pitted against state leaders eager to give a lockdown-weary public a break, even as a dangerous third wave of the virus sweeps the country. Making matters worse, the national vaccination campaign remains bogged down in bureaucracy and hampered by a lack of supply.

With only months left until Ms. Merkel’s fourth and final term ends — Germans vote on a new government on Sept. 26 — the woman who became known as the crisis chancellor for her ability to remain coolheaded and solution-oriented under pressure appears to have met her greatest challenge yet: governing as a lame duck.

The highly analytical style of politics that has served her well in the past — reading the polls and plotting a strategy centered on what will win support in the next round of voting — has been stymied as a result. That weakness has not only left a vacuum in the chancellery, but also set the country adrift at a time when it needs strong leadership and clear communication, analysts say.

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“We are seeing a massive loss of trust in the government from people, and Merkel didn’t want to accept that,” said Uwe Jun, a professor of political science at the University of Trier. “With her apology she wanted to send the signal that she is still in charge, that she can be trusted and that she wants to keep working to get the country through this pandemic.”

European Union’s medical authority and the World Health Organization say that cases of cerebral venous thrombosis, blood clots in the brain that lead to hemorrhages, are so rare they do not consider them grounds to alter administration of the shot.

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“As much as people don’t want to hear it, what we need is a lockdown to limit the number of new infections,” Dr. Ralf Bartenschlager, a molecular virologist at Heidelberg University, said at a panel discussion of the Association of German Virologists.

While the government’s communication in the first wave of the pandemic was consistent and clear, in recent weeks that clarity has given way to a patchwork of restrictions based on rising and falling numbers that people are struggling to follow.

“How we get there is always a discussion,” said Dr. Bartenschlager said. “Where we have problems is in communicating this to people.”

In her interview on Sunday, Ms. Merkel threatened to centralize power in the chancellery if state leaders ignored the need for more restrictions on movement.

Under Germany’s postwar system of decentralized government — set up by the Allies as a response to Hitler’s rule — the bar is set high for such a move, making it difficult for the chancellor to impose a nationwide lockdown without the governors’ support. But Parliament could support such a move by revising a law governing public health in a pandemic.

Even members of the opposition have said they would support strengthening the chancellor ‘s hand in this circumstance.

“The tug of war over competencies between state and federal leaders is blocking consequent action,” said Janosch Dahmen, an emergency doctor who now sits in Parliament as a lawmaker for the opposition Greens. “The problem will be that it could take weeks or months to debate, but we need to do it right now.”

The chancellor is scheduled to meet with state leaders again on April 12, although medical experts are warning that if the country does not act more quickly, intensive care wards could fill beyond capacity.

Using her weekly podcast to send Easter greetings, the chancellor urged Germans to stay home, take advantage of free testing offered by many states and hold out hope for more vaccines.

“It should be a quiet Easter, one in a small circle, with very reduced contacts. I urge you to refrain from all non-mandatory travel and that we all consistently follow all the rules,” Ms. Merkel said. “Together we will defeat this virus.”

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Merkel Reverses Easter Shutdown Plan in Germany

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday scrapped an unpopular plan to shut the German economy for two extra days over Easter, apologizing for what she called “a mistake” amid widespread anger over her government’s increasingly chaotic approach to combating the coronavirus.

The chancellor’s reversal came less than 36 hours after she proposed two additional “off days” around Easter, effectively extending the existing holiday to five consecutive days in hopes of halting a spike in coronavirus infections. The suggestion — made after nearly 12 hours of deliberations between Ms. Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states — was met with an almost immediate backlash because it would have required businesses to close.

Faced with criticism from both her own conservative bloc and from opposition politicians, along with a flood of complaints from a public worn out by 12 months of lockdowns and reopenings, the chancellor called a quick news conference and announced her decision to reverse course.

wrote on Twitter, urging the chancellor to reverse course.

“There is growing concern across the economy about long-lasting, irreparable damage,” said Siegfried Russwurm, president of the powerful B.D.I. association of German industries. He stressed the need for a “coherent pandemic concept” and urged leaders to factor more than the number of infections into their risk calculations.

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The suspension set Germany back several days in its vaccine campaign and further weakened trust in AstraZeneca. The company’s vaccine was already suffering from an image problem in Germany after experts initially limited its use to adults 64 and younger, citing a lack of information on the effects in older people. That decision was reversed several weeks later.

Despite the frustrations, many Germans realize the only way to stop the virus from spreading is to reduce contact between people and retreat again to their homes. As onerous as that idea may be after a year of restrictions, nearly a third of Germans surveyed last week said the government’s measures had not gone far enough.

The number of new infections in the country has climbed steadily since early March. Many intensive care stations have no more than two beds free.

“I think they’re not focusing enough on the long term goals and too much on details and formalities,” said Anni Koch, 24. “We might need to go through another full lockdown, which would be annoying, but maybe necessary.”

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

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Merkel Drops Easter Shutdown as Germany Flails Against Virus Surge

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel scrapped an unpopular plan on Wednesday to shut down the German economy for two extra days over the Easter holidays, reversing her own policy as her government faces widespread anger over its chaotic moves to combat a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Her about-face came less than 36 hours after she had proposed declaring April 1 and 3 “off days,” to effectively extend the country’s Easter vacation to five consecutive days in hopes of halting a recent spike in infections.

The suggestion — made after nearly 12 hours of deliberations between Ms. Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states that dragged into the early hours of Tuesday — was met with an almost immediate backlash, including sharp criticism from opposition politicians and a flood of complaints from a public worn out by a seemingly endless roller coaster of lockdowns and reopenings.

“It was a mistake,” the chancellor said, adding that the suggestion had been made with the best of intentions, aimed at slowing the B.1.1.7 variant, first discovered in Britain, which has been spreading through Germany. That spread has been aided by a sluggish vaccine rollout: Barely 10 percent of German adults have received their first shot, nearly three months after a vaccine developed by a German start-up, BioNTech, became the first in the world to receive approval.

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Yet despite the confusion created by the suggestion of extending the holidays, some acknowledged that simply going back on the plan would do little to help the country slow the spread of the coronavirus. Germany saw 15,813 new infections on Wednesday, continuing a sharp rise over recent weeks.

“Instead of more protection against the third wave, we now have less!” said Janosch Dahmen, a medical doctor who serves as a lawmaker for the Greens, said on Twitter. “The extended break over Easter is now off the table. Even if it was half-baked, today’s decision made fight against the virus worse, even though it tried to make it better.”

In other news around the world:

  • Belgium will tighten restrictions on Friday as it faces rising numbers of hospitalizations and new cases. Hairdressers and beauty salons will be closed until April 25, and other nonessential businesses will be allowed to open to the public only by appointment. Alexander de Croo, the country’s prime minister, called the new measures “an Easter break.” Schools’ spring break will be extended by one week, so students will not return to in-person instruction until April 19.

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Election Year in Germany Kicks Off With Voting in Two States

BERLIN — Voters in two southwestern German states are kicking off an election year on Sunday that could change the course of Europe’s largest economy after 16 years under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will be stepping down after a new government is sworn in.

The elections in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate are the first in a year that will see voting for new legislators in four more states, and for the country’s Parliament, which will be elected in September.

Sunday’s voting is taking place after largely muted election campaigns that were overshadowed by the threat of the coronavirus and by lockdowns. While neither race will serve as a clear bellwether for the fall election, the outcomes could indicate how voters are feeling about the two leading parties, the conservatives and the Greens, and help focus the contest for Ms. Merkel’s replacement.

“It is an unbelievably exciting election year,” said Thorsten Faas, a professor of political science at Berlin’s Free University. “A lot is still open, creating the possibility for movement in various directions.”

Armin Laschet, who took who took over as leader of the Christian Democratic Union in January.

Normally the party would put forward its leader as the candidate in the race for the chancellor, but Mr. Laschet has so far proved to be less popular with the German public than the governor of Bavaria, Markus Söder, who could instead be tapped as the conservative candidate.

Mr. Söder, who is also the head of the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union, has raised his profile as someone who takes tough, decisive action to halt the spread of the pandemic in his state, closing the border to Austria and sending vaccines to help the beleaguered Czech Republic.

Mr. Laschet has said the conservatives will decide in the coming months whether the head of the Christian Democratic Union or the head of the Christian Social Union will run in September as the conservative bloc’s candidate for chancellor. But if the Christian Democrats take a beating in Sunday’s elections, they might decide faster.

Whoever is selected will face the Greens’ candidate, who has yet to be named, and Germany’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, who is running for the Social Democrats.

Support for the Greens has nearly doubled since the election in 2017, making them the second strongest party heading into the national election, after the conservatives and ahead of the Social Democrats.

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