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Profile: Who Is Nawaz Sharif?

Former and soon-to-be Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to journalists at his house in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore on May 13.
Former and soon-to-be Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to journalists at his house in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore on May 13.
In an astounding turnaround, Nawaz Sharif is set to begin a record third term as Pakistani prime minister after the country's historic May 11 elections.

The 63-year-old's return to power caps a remarkable decade and a half in which Sharif went from prime minister to political exile to Pakistan's main opposition leader.

His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is poised to win a majority in the national parliament and swept the prosperous eastern Punjab Province, which is home to more than half of the country's 180 million people.

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Sharif's supporters see him as a savior capable of pulling the country out of its economic quagmire and providing a respite from crippling power cuts, inflation, and high unemployment.

But critics at home and abroad wonder whether Sharif, known as a devout Muslim, will confront the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, whose violent actions have killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis in the past few years.

Pakistan's neighbors and the United States will be watching to see how he tackles Islamist militants as Western forces prepare to leave neighboring Afghanistan next year.

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His career in politics offer mixed signals. Known as a gourmet and cricket enthusiast, Sharif joined politics to protect the business interests of his large industrialist family in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.

The Sharifs became steel magnates after migrating from northern India at the time of partition in 1947.

His father, Muhammad Sharif, known for his business acumen and work ethic, suffered after the socialist-leaning Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto nationalized his Ittefaq Industries in the early 1970s.

Nawaz Sharif became a protégé of former military dictator Ziaul Haq, who overthrew Bhutto in 1977.

The family regained its industries and Sharif became a provincial finance minister in Punjab in the 1980s.

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After Haq's death in 1988, Sharif emerged as the leader of the right-leaning conservative nationalists and became prime minister twice in the 1990s.

As a leader, Sharif had little charisma but was seen as a good manager. His time in office was marked by huge infrastructure and employment-generation schemes. The country's business community was impressed by his economic liberalization policies.

Sharif's second stint in power was cut short by General Pervez Musharraf's military coup d'etat in 1999. Sharif had appointed Musharraf, but they disagreed over Sharif's push for peace with archrival India.

Sharif was banished to Saudi Arabia, where he spent several years before returning to Pakistan in 2007.

During his time in exile, many observers declared Sharif a spent force in Pakistani politics.

But Sharif has now proved his critics wrong by staging a remarkable comeback to the corridors of power -- and it is Musharraf who now is under house arrest, barred from office, and facing a number of criminal cases related to his nine-year rule.

Former Pakistani diplomat and Sharif confidant Tariq Fatmi says that Sharif's victory reflects people's hopes for improved governance and a better economy.

"It is a testimony to the fact that during the past five years the performance of the PMLN-led government in the [eastern] province of the Punjab was far superior and totally scandal-free as compared to the governments at the federal [level], as well as the provincial governments of the other three provinces," Fatmi says. "Mr. Nawaz Sharif articulated a policy and a program for the future, specifically in the economic area, based on past performance and not mere promise."

Fatmi suspects that Sharif is likely to resume his peace overtures to India after assuming office.

"Having been the first prime minister of Pakistan to reach out to his Indian counterpart with the objective of arriving at a relationship that would not only be cordial and cooperative but also be of meaningful contribution to the economic growth in both countries, [Sharif] wishes to pick up the thread from where it was interrupted in 1999 because of the military coup," Fatmi says.

In an early indication that he will pursue better relations, Sharif said on May 13 that he would be "very happy" to invite Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his swearing-in ceremony.

Sharif's push for peace with India and economic policies are expected to attract strong backing from the pro-business, urban middle class in Punjab.

But it remains to be seen whether he can get along with the country's powerful military establishment, which opposes his peace overtures to India.

The outline of Sharif's relationship with the military will become clearer during his first few months in office -- in particular, what kind of stamp he will seek to put on Pakistan's domestic war on terrorism, which is broadly fought by the military.

Crucially, top generals will be watching who he will choose to succeed military chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, whose term is set to end in the next few months.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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