Merkel’s Latest Pandemic Challenge: Leading as a Lame Duck
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.
“Angela Merkel is someone who thinks everything through to the end, but now with months left in her final term there is no end goal,” said Michael Koss, a professor of political science at Leuphana University Lüneburg. “The end is the election in September.”
Ms. Merkel’s troubles were evident in her recent attempt to tighten coronavirus restrictions over the Easter holidays, closing businesses and limiting gatherings. Her plan, which local governors had agreed to, came under immediate fire from the public and business leaders. Barely 36 hours later, she rescinded the idea, accepting blame for the mistake.
While the move earned her widespread respect from politicians, it made little impression on the public, which has struggled to understand a complex system of lockdowns, rules and reopenings. While four weeks ago a clear majority, 52 percent, of Germans said they felt the government was doing a good job managing the pandemic, by the end of last week only 38 percent still approved, according to the regular Politbarometer survey.
“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.”
Days after her apology, Ms. Merkel appeared on a Sunday evening talk show on the country’s leading public television station, A.R.D. — a move that Mr. Jun notes is made at the chancellor’s behest and only when she senses the need to reach the public. But instead of making concrete proposals to replace the five-day Easter lockdown, she apologized again and blamed the states for being lax.
“She needs to make concrete suggestions about what it is that she wants now and what she is planning,” Mr. Jun said.
One area where Germans are clamoring for clarity is the country’s vaccination program. Launched in late December, with each state tasked with setting up its own vaccine centers, it has been slow to take off, largely because of shortages of deliveries — a situation that causes outrage in Germany, where the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was developed.
On Tuesday, Germany announced that it was suspending use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people younger than 60 because of concerns over blood clots, adding chaos to the vaccination campaign and drawing criticism it was overreacting. The 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.
But even where enough vaccine is present, some Germans can become entangled by bureaucracy. One, Laura Buttkereit, a clinical specialist who works with surgeons in operating rooms, said she was denied her shot because she signed up for it herself.
“They sent me away because my employer should have made the appointment for me,” she said.
A full 92 percent of Germans polled this month said the country’s immunization campaign is not going well. Reports that many states’ immunization centers would remain closed on public holidays over Easter provoked outrage, although the authorities said it was because there wasn’t enough supply to keep them open.
BioNTech has said it will increase production of its vaccine in Europe to 2.5 billion doses, but with waits of up to two months for a first injection, that pledge will do little to slow the virus in the coming weeks.
Ms. Merkel has been unable to corral her rancorous governors — many of whom are already campaigning — to line up behind a nationwide lockdown that medical experts say is needed in Germany, which has been gripped by a highly transmissible variant first seen in Britain. The seven-day average of new virus cases as of Wednesday was about 17,140, a level comparable with late January, according to The New York Times database.
“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.”