Throughout Tanzania's history, Zanzibar has remained semi-autonomous. Now, a constitutional referendum may enshrine its status in Tanzania's legal system.

In late 1963, Zanzibar won its independence from the UK, and over the ensuing months, internal conflicts saw power change hands from the traditional Arab elites to African nationalists, ending over 200 years of Arab-Asian control of the island. Months later in 1964, Zanzibar united with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. By the end of that same year, the fledgling republic was renamed the United Republic of Tanzania. And while unification integrated Zanzibar with the Tanzania mainland, the region has retained a semi-autonomous status ever since, through its Revolutionary Council, and the House of Representatives.

Zanzibar's political outlay is remarkably different from its mainland counterpart, Tanganyika. To begin with, Zanzibar has its own flag, national anthem, and constitution, with the requisite political offices. The United Republic of Tanzania is a unitary republic, administratively divided into 26 regions, with 21 on the mainland and the remaining five in Zanzibar. These regions are sub-divided into divisions, and local governance is divided into rural and urban authorities. On Zanzibar, urban authorities are comprised of municipalities and town councils, while rural authorities take the form of district councils.

Currently, members of Zanzibar's House of Representatives are elected in accordance with the government's constitution. The first 50 members are elected directly by the electorate, and serve five-year terms. The President of Zanzibar appoints a further 10 members individually, while 15 special seats are reserved for women. Another six members serve ex-officio, including all regional commissioners and the attorney general. Five of these 81 members are then elected to represent Zanzibar in the Tanzania National Assembly.

In 2014, Zanzibar is again at the forefront of Tanzania's national consciousness as a vote to determine its status is slated to take place in April 2015. The island's political future hinges on a constitutional referendum that will radically alter the way Tanzania is governed, by proposing the formation of a three-part government—one for Tanzania and one each for Tanganyika (mainland Tanzania) and Zanzibar. The new constitution would also reduce the overarching authority of the president of Tanzania—reducing the number of union issues under his control from 22 to 7—and effectively increase the autonomy of Tanzania's president, as well as that of Tanganyika.

The referendum deserves a closer look at its implications not only for Zanzibar, but also for mainland Tanzania, as well. The new model introduces a novel concept—three vice-presidents, the first Vice-President, the second Vice- President, who is the President of Zanzibar, and the third Vice-President, who is the Prime Minister. With so many vice-presidents, it follows that the powers of the president be reduced in correlation, in part through the reduction of areas of authority, but also through the establishment of a Supreme Court, which in addition to operating as the supreme judicial authority, would be vested with the power to hear petitions challenging presidential election results. In the past, the fractious nature of Tanzania's electoral process has raised concerns among minority parties regarding impartiality. An autonomous body such as the proposed Supreme Court would go a long ways toward rectifying this situation and bring the state in line with the democratic deals that it espouses. Furthermore, the first draft of the proposed constitution removes the parliamentary role from the presidential position, and introduced a fully independent speaker and deputy speaker. Another article allows independent candidates to contest in all positions, from the grassroots level to the presidency.

This outcome is far from certain, as ideological differences are manifesting themselves in alternative versions of the proposed constitution. The ruling Revolutionary Party (CCM) prefers the status quo, arguing that the proposed three-government system undermines national unity, yet it seems willing to move forward with the referendum. Meanwhile, on Zanzibar, the islands majority-Muslim population is adamant about the importance of increased autonomy. This means that unless tenets ensuring such an outcome are included, the proposed constitution may well be voted down on the island.