By Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) - It was shortly after 6 p.m. on Monday, March 22 when Angela Merkel called a break after hours of deadlocked discussion with her deputy and Germany's 16 state premiers on how to halt a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After winning international plaudits for its initial response to the pandemic last year, Germany was struggling. The number of patients in intensive care was close to the peak of the first wave a year earlier, and the vaccine rollout was proceeding at a painfully slow pace.
Merkel, in the final months of her 16-year rule, told the premiers she wanted to extend a nationwide lockdown and tighten restrictions on movement, effectively confining Germans to their homes for the upcoming Easter holidays.
The state leaders were not all game. Some rejected plans by her chief of staff, Helge Braun, to introduce curfews. Others, from the north, wanted holidays under some conditions allowed.
"That is not the right answer at this time," Merkel sighed before the giant screen showing the 14 regional leaders attending the meeting virtually.
A year into the pandemic, Germany's patchwork federal system is fraying. The unity between Berlin and the regions that marked the first year of the crisis is unravelling as many state premiers, facing pressure from business and voters, press for life to get back to normal.
The approach of a federal election in September is straining those political threads even further.
State leaders including North Rhine-Westphalia premier Armin Laschet, chairman of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and her would-be successor, are more eager to open up as they look ahead to the election in September, when Merkel is stepping down.
In contrast Merkel, who doesn't have to face the verdict of voters again, wants to double down with her push for tougher measures. She has even publicly criticized Laschet for his state's loose policing of restrictions.
Fractious federal-state relations are not entirely to blame for Germany's fumbling pandemic response: Berlin has also been accused of cautiousness and investing too much faith in the European Union for its vaccine rollout. But they have become an obstacle to taking coordinated, quick action as patience wears thin on all sides, resulting in policy flip-flops and waning support for Merkel's conservative camp.
The increasingly tense relationship between Merkel and state leaders "only exacerbates pandemic mismanagement and comes back to hurt the CDU and CSU," the Bavarian sister to Merkel's party, said Naz Masraff at political risk consultancy Eurasia.
Exasperated by the deadlock at last week's talks, Merkel turned to her chief of staff Braun, a 48-year-old doctor with intensive care experience, and asked him for other suggestions.
The break was planned for 15 minutes but lasted six hours. Conservative and Social Democrat premiers split into separate huddles. Left hanging, Bodo Ramelow, the far-left Linke premier of Thuringia, turned to Reiner Haseloff of neighbouring Saxony Anhalt, and they killed time browsing different video conferencing screen backdrops.
Eventually, Braun came back with a plan for a five-day circuit breaker shutdown over Easter. Since shops in Germany would already be closed on Easter Friday, Sunday and Monday, they would only have to close for two extra days - Thursday and Saturday. Merkel ran the plan by the state leaders and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) candidate for the chancellery.
They approved, Merkel closed the meeting at 2.30 a.m, and presented the plan to bleary-eyed journalists with the premiers of Bavaria and Berlin.
Then the trouble started. Merkel's own, wider camp balked.
At 10:45 a.m. Alexander Dobrindt, deputy leader of her conservative bloc in parliament, asked for "improvements". Then Interior Minister Horst Seehofer complained that churches would be reduced to online services at Easter.
The resistance grew and on the Wednesday morning Merkel made a swift and remarkable decision: drop the plan. Summoning the state premiers again online, she informed them of her U-turn and at 12:30 p.m. addressed the nation.
"This mistake is mine alone," she said from the chancellery. "I ask all citizens for forgiveness."
NAME AND SHAME
The unusual, four-minute mea culpa proved a clever tactic. Merkel won plaudits from her own camp and the opposition for her honesty, and attention quickly focused on the state leaders - who agreed to the plan - and on the dysfunction of their meetings with the chancellor.
"What was seen by some commentators as a sign of weakness was in fact a way to get from a defensive point onto the attack," said a person close to Merkel, speaking on condition of anonymity.
That point of attack was aimed at the state premiers. Not even Laschet was spared.
In a Sunday night talk show, Merkel accused him and some other state leaders of disregarding a March 3 agreement on how to manage the national lockdown.
As the federal regions wield power over health and security issues, Merkel, who is still Germany's most popular politician, is resorting to such name and shame tactics to cajole the state leaders into taking tougher action.
Her popularity helps: a survey by pollster Civey for the Augsburger Allgemeine daily showed two thirds of 5,002 people questioned this week backed Merkel's approach and believed she should intervene more strongly in the states' pandemic response.
She is gaining some traction.
On Tuesday, Brandenburg tightened its guidelines and Laschet said his state had imposed a so-called "emergency brake" by requiring people to test negative before visiting some shops.
While the politicians bicker, time is running short.
Germany's vaccine supplies are due to ramp up from April, though changing guidance on the AstraZeneca shot has put many Germans off it. The country's leading virologist has warned a tougher lockdown will be needed anyway. None is in sight.
The intransigence is costing the CDU/CSU alliance, which has lost 10 points in polls since early February.
"We are in a miserable state at the moment, and we have to get out of it," lamented one conservative lawmaker. "I have never experienced the mood like this in our ranks before."
(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)