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BERLIN - 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.