Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani opposition leader set to become prime minister for a historic third term, is a millionaire steel tycoon, considered strong on the economy, but soft on the Taliban.
The 63-year-old, who was sentenced to life in prison after being deposed in a military coup in 1999, has a power-base rooted in Pakistan’s richest and most populous province, where he is known as the “Lion of the Punjab.”
Immaculately groomed and dressed always in a pristine shalwar kamiz with a sharply cut waistcoat, he appeared relaxed and satisfied as he declared victory for his center-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party.
However, after campaigning as a statesman in waiting, he inherits an impossible job, not just in stitching together a coalition government, but in taking on the enormous problems of the sagging economy and a stifling energy crisis.
“We should thank Allah that he has given PML-N another chance to serve you and Pakistan,” he told jubilant supporters who shouted “prime minister Nawaz Sharif” and his nickname, “lion,” as they danced and waved flags overnight on Saturday.
According to the unofficial, partial results it appeared that no single party would win a simple majority of 172 seats in the national assembly, raising the prospect of protracted talks to form a coalition government.
Prime minister twice already, between 1990 and 1993, and between 1997 and 1999, but softly spoken and shy with the international media, he is considered a pragmatist in the West, despite comments opposing US intervention in the war on al-Qaeda.
He has also called for peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, blamed for killing thousands of Pakistanis in the past six years.
Sharif was born on Dec. 25, 1949, into a wealthy family of industrialists in Lahore, the capital of Punjab and the political nerve center of Pakistan.
He was educated privately at English-language schools and secured a degree in law from the University of Punjab, before joining his father’s steel company.
The family suffered considerably when former Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nationalized private industry in the 1970s and as the elder son, Sharif was quickly dispatched into politics.
Under the patronage of former Pakistani president and military ruler Zia-ul Haq he became first finance minister and then chief minister of Punjab — a post he held for five years from 1985 until he was elected Pakistani prime minister in 1990.
He beat arch-rival Benazir Bhutto in the polls and served a three-year term until he was sacked on corruption charges and replaced by her.
In 1997, he won a landslide two-thirds majority for his PML-N and set about cementing his liberal economic policies.
He privatized state industries and built a high-speed motorway from the northwestern city of Peshawar to Lahore on the Indian border.
In 1998, he won huge popularity when he made Pakistan a nuclear power, but his government buckled under tensions with the army, which in 1999 seized power.
Sharif was sentenced in a military court to life imprisonment for hijacking and terrorism, before being allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000.
After seven years in the wilderness he was allowed to return in 2007 and his PML-N party came second in the 2008 election, won by the Pakistan People’s Party on a wave of sympathy following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.