The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

400 gnomes disappeared in Austria, and it’s causing a political scandal

Gnomes used by the Social Democrats in Austria. (Social Democratic Party)
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Last weekend in the mountainous Austrian state of Vorarlberg, 400 gnomes disappeared. Nobody knows where they have gone. But everyone knows it's down to politics.

With regional elections set for Sept. 21, the left-wing Social Democratic Party ordered 20,000 gnomes called "Coolmen" earlier this year. The gnomes, toting sunglasses and campaign signs, were the party's last-ditch effort to prevent an electoral defeat in Vorarlberg. About 400 of the gnomes were attached to lampposts on Saturday as alternatives to traditional posters, but their mass disappearance by Sunday morning 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 told The Washington Post on Tuesday. Ritsch has filed a complaint, and the state's police forces have launched an investigation.

Speaking to Austrian public broadcaster ORF, the local leadership of the OeVP party denied the allegations. The party's local general manager told ORF that people who leveled such unfounded accusations were no better than the actual gnome thieves.

But Ritsch persists with his accusations. "All of our gnomes are 40 centimeters tall. The thieves must have needed more than just one truck to steal them," he said. And he points out another interesting detail: Soon after the gnomes were removed, he said, posters advertising the OeVP party were put up in the same spots.

The gnomes were intended as gifts to local voters, but police have told Ritsch that their suspected theft en masse could constitute a criminal offense. Electoral advertisement campaigns are largely taxpayer-funded in Austria, which means that the gnomes were publicly financed, making their theft a sensitive political issue. According to the Social Democratic Party, it spent roughly a third of its campaign resources in the state, $660,000 in total, on the gnomes.

Their use — instead of posters — offers some interesting insights into the Austrian political landscape. While American candidates would preferably show their own faces in video spots, the Social Democrats relied on their small mascots, as you can see in this video:

Austrian political commentator Thomas Hofer, who studied election campaign management in Washington, is skeptical about the success of using gnomes. "Knowing that their party was about to lose the campaign, they tried to be perceived as humorous by comparing themselves with little gnomes. However, the symbolic reference causes the opposite reactions it is supposed to," he said.

Hofer indirectly blames the United States for the emergence of such election campaigns. "More than other European countries, Austria has always tried to copy American campaigns," he said. Having much less public funding for their party's campaign in the region, the Social Democrats were doomed to lose the advertisement fight, which is waged mostly through posters hung up on walls and lampposts. Television does not play a major role in the country's election campaigns because public TV channels (which dominate the market) are not allowed to broadcast political advertisement. Gnomes seemed like a welcome alternative for the Social Democrats, a party that is among the strongest political forces in Austria but has been historically weak in Vorarlberg and the west of the country.

"Gnomes are quite important in the region. You usually marry, you buy a house, and you buy a gnome," Vienna-based political scientist Hubert Sickinger told The Post. But Sickinger also doubts their efficacy in election campaigns.

German gnome expert and manufacturer Andreas Klein, however, thinks that gnomes "make it much easier to break the ice or to get the attention of voters."

Voter turnout in Austria largely decreased after the 1970s, prompting parties to invest resources in finding uncommon means to reach out to the electorate. Countries across Europe are experiencing similar trends of voter disillusionment, with commentators pointing to a widening gap between citizens and political elites.

Ritsch said that, no matter the outcome of the election, he has 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.