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Deep in the night, in the heart of Berlin’s concrete chancellery building, Angela Merkel was at a loss.

A tense videoconference with senior officials that began Monday afternoon had been at a standstill for almost eight hours. Germany needed something from the government to regain control of the coronavirus outbreak, but the chancellor had nothing that could win the backing of the country’s powerful state leaders.

In a mix of desperation and exhaustion, 66-year-old Merkel turned to her chief of staff Helge Braun, according to a person with knowledge of the exchange. “Do you have any other idea?” she said. Braun, a trained doctor, suggested a five-day hard lockdown over the Easter weekend.

That might be the moment she lost control.

Thirty-three hours later, after a fierce backlash in public and behind closed doors, Merkel abandoned the plan. The reverberations from that late-night decision could have significant consequences for the future of Europe’s largest economy.

Beyond the battle with COVID-19, Germany’s political class has one eye on a national election in late September when, for the first time in a generation, Merkel herself won’t be on the ballot. Her conservative bloc began this month with a 16-point lead in opinion polls, signaling a smooth handover and business-as-usual for the country’s dominant group.

After three weeks later of policy flip-flops and spiraling infections, its advantage over the Greens is down to just four points and there’s suddenly a real chance that the next chancellor might not come from her Christian Democrat-led bloc.

The latest projections show that no simple two-party coalition would have a majority. A more complicated three-way alliance could increase the chances of the Greens leading the next government.

“The federal government is responsible,” Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock said in an interview with ARD television Wednesday night, avoiding any direct attack on Merkel. “The situation is dramatic, the people are rightly so really, really frustrated and trust in politics has been massively tarnished.” She suggested Merkel should have pushed for more targeted measures, calling for quick tests in schools and day care centers, a firmer implementation of policies to reimpose restrictions in hard-hit areas and faster inoculations.

The scene in the chancellery in the early hours of Tuesday had laid bare the problems of a struggling administration that has been battling the pandemic for a year.

Merkel had hashed out the outline of Braun’s plan for a short-term lockdown with a small group including Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. With time running short and nothing else on the table, they sold the idea to the wider group of state leaders waiting on the video call — and promised to flesh out later the details of how it would be implemented.

Shortly after 2:30 a.m, a visibly drained Merkel announced the plan — which meant shutting all shops including food stores on the Thursday before Easter, traditionally the day when Germans stock up for the holiday.

Later that day, she faced an open revolt in her party. In a meeting of her parliamentary group, lawmakers from her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Bavarian CSU sister party protested that they didn’t understand the measure.

Outside of the Bundestag, temperatures were also rising. Supermarkets said that meat already ordered for pre-Easter shoppers would rot. Employers asked whether they would be reimbursed for the Thursday break. The Cologne Institute for Economic Research reckoned the plan would cost Germany up to €7 billion ($8.3 billion) in lost output.

The state leaders, too, were feeling the blowback when Merkel brought them together again for a hastily arranged call and let them know that she was backing down, issuing a rare public apology in her subsequent comments to the media. By taking responsibility for the mistake, she may still manage to deflect anger away from her party.

But one thing that was missing from her statement was a new plan to fight Germany’s third wave of the pandemic.

A month ago, contagion rates were falling and the focus was meeting public demands to reopen shops, schools and restaurants. Now infections are back up to a level last seen in January as aggressive new strains of the virus take hold, intensive care wards fill up and vaccinations remain hard to come by.

With even a short-term lockdown proving politically impossible, it’s difficult to see where Merkel goes next.

“The consensus of opinion amongst scientists is that you bring the numbers down with a lockdown and try to keep them down with a vaccine,” Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading. “I don’t think anybody seriously thinks you could bring the numbers down radically with a vaccine alone.”

Beyond the battle with COVID-19, Germany’s political class has one eye on a national election in late September when, for the first time in a generation, Chancellor Angela Merkel won’t be on the ballot. | AFP-JIJI
Beyond the battle with COVID-19, Germany’s political class has one eye on a national election in late September when, for the first time in a generation, Chancellor Angela Merkel won’t be on the ballot. | AFP-JIJI

Merkel’s party, meanwhile, is hamstrung by the tussle to succeed her.

CDU chief Armin Laschet and his CSU counterpart Soeder are vying to lead the ticket in September’s election. The Bavarian leader is more popular with voters, but Laschet is determined and has leverage as head of the much larger party, according to officials close to the discussions.

In a meeting with CDU officials from Dresden on Tuesday, Laschet made it clear that neither his poor popularity nor slumping poll numbers for the bloc will deter him from running.

The decision, which will be made by late May, “will in the end not be based on any polls, but on the question of who has the best chances to win this election,” Laschet said.

The contest has led to subtle attacks between the two. At the announcement of the Easter lockdown, Soeder claimed victory for “team caution.” After it got pulled, Laschet gloated that it was the right move because a national holiday can’t be arranged in just 10 days.

Merkel has been watching with growing unease, said an official with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be identified because the chancellor has vowed to stay out of the succession race.

For now, her best chances of helping either of them is to tamp down the pandemic and accelerate immunizations. By the end of June, officials in the chancellery are hoping the positive effects of vaccinations will be felt.

The EU is due to see the numbers of vaccines available increase significantly in the second quarter, which should help. And once the candidacy issue is settled, that will allow the party to pull together and focus on the election. All that might allow the conservative bloc’s poll numbers to rise closer to their historical average.

But the officials close to Merkel also acknowledge that Germans might not see normality start to return until August. That would bring them perilously close to election day, and each misstep by the chancellor gives her party less and less time to recover its standing before voters issue their verdict.

”The only people who were happy with our Easter decisions were the ICU staff,” Merkel said in an interview with ARD television, referring to the rising number of severe cases hospitals are dealing with. “And maybe through the discussion, it’s become even clearer that we’re in a third wave.”

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