Last weekend in Austria's mountainous state of Vorarlberg, 400 gnomes vanished. No one knows where they have gone. But everyone knows it's down to politics.
With regional elections set for September 21, the left-wing Social Democratic Party ordered 20,000 gnomes called "Coolmen" earlier this year. The gnomes, wearing sunglasses, were the party's last-ditch effort to avoid defeat in Vorarlberg.
About 400 of the gnomes were fixed to lamp posts on Saturday as alternatives to posters, but their mass disappearance by Sunday was conspicuous.
"I suspect our rival party OeVP [the Austrian People's Party] to have removed the gnomes," local Social Democratic Party leader Michael Ritsch said on Tuesday.
He has filed a complaint, and the state's police forces have launched an investigation.
However, the local leadership of the OeVP party has denied the claims and told ORF, Austria's public broadcaster, that people who made such unfounded claims were no better than the actual gnome thieves. Yet Ritsch has persisted with his accusations. "All of our gnomes are 40 centimetres tall," he said. "The thieves must have needed more than just one truck to steal them."
He also said that, soon after the gnomes disappeared, posters advertising the OeVP party were put up in the same spots.
Although the gnomes were meant as gifts for voters, police told Ritsch the mass theft could be a criminal offence, as they were part of electoral advertising largely funded by taxpayers. Te party spent about a third of its campaign fund in the state, US$660,000 in total, on the gnomes.
Austrian political commentator Thomas Hafer said he was sceptical about the success of using gnomes as campaigners. "Knowing that their party was about to lose the campaign, they tried to be perceived as humorous by comparing themselves with little gnomes," Hafer said. "However, the symbolic reference causes the opposite reactions it is supposed to."
Vienna-based political scientist Hubert Sickinger said: "Gnomes are quite important in the region. You usually marry, buy a house, and buy a gnome."
Ritsch said that, no matter the result of the election, he had attained his goal of awakening voter interest in local issues. "Recently people have started to come up to me more frequently again. Then, we talk about gnomes and politics," he said.