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Nawaz Sharif, middle, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, addresses an election rally in Islamabad on May 5. Pakistan's general elections will be held on Saturday. (MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS)
Nawaz Sharif, middle, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, addresses an election rally in Islamabad on May 5. Pakistan's general elections will be held on Saturday. (MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS)

ELECTIONS

Sharif’s comeback nearly complete as Pakistanis head to the polls Add to ...

Overthrown, imprisoned and exiled to the political wilderness, Nawaz Sharif has staged a remarkable comeback.

The Lion of Punjab, as his supporters call him, is on the cusp of becoming Pakistan’s prime minister for a third time in historic elections Saturday, while his younger brother, Shahbaz, is expected to regain control of the country’s most populous and wealthy province, Punjab.

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For more than 30 years, dogged by allegations of egregious patronage and questionable megaprojects, the Sharifs have hung on as Pakistan has convulsed and teetered. Even in their dynasty’s darkest moments, they have remained both relevant and regal, amassing a personal fortune that allowed the clan to build a palatial residence, an estate with peacocks and deer roaming the grounds and two stuffed African lions outside a room where guests are received at the 283-hectare property near Lahore.

The Sharifs are betting that Pakistanis see them as a great hope of entrepreneurial spirit, a dynastic duo who can combat dismal economic growth, aggressive Taliban destabilization and diminishing security after winning the first democratic change of power in the country’s history.

Along a dusty, rural road lined with textile factories and sugar mills lies the village of Manga Mandi – part of a whistle-stop tour for the Sharifs before campaigning officially ended Thursday. Several thousand are crammed into a village square. Party posters depicting the two brothers line the buildings as songs blare over loudspeakers. Rivals supporting the Sharif brothers’ main opponent – former cricket superstar Imran Khan – taunt the crowd by showing a Khan election poster from atop a building behind the stage. The crowd roars.

For Rana Imran Haider, the young organizer of this rally, the Sharifs will be good for business.

“When it was [Nawaz Sharif’s] tenure until 1999, the industry was booming. Everybody was happy. For the last five years, the industry has been crashed. I belong to the textile industry, more than 500 units – textile mills – have been shut down because of electricity crisis, because of security issues,” Mr. Haider said. “They [the Sharifs] can solve these problems.”

Minutes later, the electricity cuts off and the village is plunged into darkness. There are cheers and cackles as rally-goers switch on the built-in flashlights in their cellphones and wave them above their heads.

Power reliance is a big issue in this country. Pakistani experts estimate that, in 2009, power outages affecting factories and manufacturing cost the economy $3.8-billion, or 2.5 per cent of the GDP. Since then, the electricity problem has only worsened.

And the question of how much outside countries can rely on Pakistan’s authority over its extremist elements is another issue. The stakes in this election could not be higher for the country – or the region.

What is at stake

The Pakistani Taliban is waging a resilient insurgency in the tribal areas and frustrating the army. It has carried out suicide attacks and bombings across the country – killing more than 100 people, often secular political party activists and candidates – in the three weeks before election day. And it now controls chunks of Karachi, the country’s largest city and Pakistan’s commercial engine.

Pakistan’s neighbour, Afghanistan, is imploding slowly under its own Taliban insurgency – which it blames on Pakistan. Its relationship with India is mired in mistrust and animosity over Pakistan-based jihadi groups carrying out attacks in India. At a time when Western powers are cracking down on Iran over its nuclear program, Pakistan has signed a deal to build a gas pipeline with Iran to meet its energy needs.

The world looks to Pakistan to solve its internal wars, seal its borders and stem the flow of militants in a nuclearized region already roiling with tension.

Those problems will likely wind up at the desk of the doughy, energetic and unbowed Nawaz Sharif. At 63, and with two tumultuous terms in the prime minister’s chair behind him, the aging lion sees his last chance to rule the kingdom. His main challenger, Imran Khan, toppled nearly five metres from a makeshift platform at a Lahore rally on Tuesday and broke three vertebrae. He now lies in a hospital bed but may yet play the role of spoiler.

“[The lion] will roar on May 11th, everyone else will run away,” Mr. Sharif promised tens of thousands of supporters at a rally in southern Punjab last month. But his opponents are not so easily frightened – even with the occasional display of an actual caged lion at some Sharif rallies. His victory is by no means a certainty.

Mr. Sharif’s probable victory is somewhat improbable when one considers the 2x3-metre prison cells in which he and his brother languished after a military coup, led by Pervez Musharraf, in 1999. (Or for that matter, the seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia and the UK that followed for the Sharif clan.)

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