Alright. Let’s get governmental. (As a fun side note, I am getting governmental from the coffee shop. Hooray for wireless internet!)
The night elves are a curiously religious society; probably more so than any other race except for possibly the draenei, and their beliefs are somewhat dramatically different. (Given how closely personal their religion is.) And while the Prophet Velen does indeed lead the draenei, saying they have any actual government at this point is probably premature; they’re in a state of chaos more than anything.
But the night elves, well…
The Night Elves have two major leaders. The first is High Priestess Tyrande Whisperwind, and she is, as the name suggests, a priestess. Her main opponent is either the Archdruid Fandral Staghelm or Archdruid Malfurion Stormrage, take your pick. A case can be made for either. The point is, any of these three means that the night elves are being politically lead by a religious leader. Any one of them wouldn’t clearly mean the night elves are a theocracy, but when all three of them are, you have to wonder: Is it explicitly true that to be a governor within the night elves, you have to belong to the religious classes?
The answer is more complicated, I think, than it first appears. Theocracy tends to be highly moralistic, and they explicitly acknowledge their deity as the true head of state. Neither appear to be the case for the night elves. The Sentinels appear to be an efficient and dedicated police force rather than a thought-police; Tyrande has no problem with gnomish heathens tramping all over Teldrassil unless they start experimenting on the trees. (Though the sheer impossibility of stopping them makes me wonder if she hasn’t started an exports service to send saplings to them instead.)
This is all highly speculative, of course, but here’s my theory on how night elf civic society works.
There is no official government. That is, the night elves do not have a system in place for electing or appointing leaders. In theory, nobody can issue orders or claim to represent the entire race. In practice, however, three forces end up vying for power.
First, there’s the priesthood, and second, the druids. Both claim strength from the strong religious bent of the night elf people and a robust internal organization: Both most likely do have strict internal systems for selecting leaders and hierarchy within their ranks. The priesthood have slightly more popular support, the druids have a more powerful organization and mystical heft. As such, they’re the real game in night elf politics. There are no real elections, per se, but if either side feel they can seize power, then they do so.
So who decides who has power? The third group in this arrangement: The Sentinels. While the major military power of the night elves, they also know they could not command the will of the people the way that either of the religious groups could. As such, they have historically swung between the two depending upon which one seems to have the upper hand at the time. The people tend to thus accept that whomever the Sentinels are supporting is the recognised government
They key words being, of course, in theory. The reality always ends up more messy. The Sentinels would have too much to risk in heavily aligning themselves with either side firmly; if the people turn against that group, they lose their acclaim and much of their power. (They still need to recruit, after all, military organisations live and die by their recruitment.) But General Shandris Feathermoon is a loyal ally of Tyrande, and thus their allegiance to her is probably stronger than it would normally be.
None the less, on the whole the system works as an anarcho-theocracy (a term I am indebted to the impeccable Mrigashirsha at Shift-T.) Both sides engage in religious populism in order to boost their support among the populace, with the druids slightly more willing to risk potentially unpopular moral regulation as they can fall back on their mystic might should they lose some support, while the priesthood live and die on it. This also, however, means that the priesthood is more likely to engage in moral regulation if the population dominantly supports it; they can’t afford to anger their constituents in either direction. The real swing between the two is between the authoritarian druids, and the populist priesthood. With the Sentinels currently highly lined up with the priesthood, this likely gives Tyrande some freedom in her decisions, but if Feathermoon is deposed as general, the political balance of the Night Elves could swing heavily.
What do you guys think? Does my speculation mesh with Warcraft canon? Have I missed a crucial fact that discounts it? Let me know in comments.