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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 ...

This time around, the campaign message is captivating and quixotic. Mr. Sharif said recently that Pakistan and India had wasted billions of dollars in a futile arms race and should sit down and negotiate, which would be welcome sign for those who see that there are other threats in the neighbourhood to consider. That opinion, though, can’t be too popular with the army, whose support he will require to keep the country stable.

He has also hinted that there isn’t a military solution to the country’s struggle with the Pakistani Taliban. “I think guns and bullets are always not the answer to such problems,” Mr. Sharif said in an interview with Reuters, suggesting that negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban was one of the options that should be pursued.

Ambitiously, Mr. Sharif promises to turn Pakistan’s economy into an Asian tiger. His main promise is to solve the electricity crisis – which has left factories silent, hurt small business and forced families to cope with outages. Pakistanis are frustrated with their government’s rationing of electricity, which leaves the country without power for 12 hours or more over the course of a day.

Continuing the Sharif love affair with transportation, Mr. Sharif has promised high-speed bullet trains that will carry passengers from the port city of Karachi to northwestern Peshawar in a day. The Sharif stamp is already on the country’s first major super highway built in the 1990s between the capital Islamabad and Lahore – a lavish $1-billion project in a country with one of the lowest literacy rates and lowest health expenditure as a percentage of GDP in South Asia.

“The Sharifs have been around for 30 years, a lifetime. Their specialty all these years has been the quick-fix gimmick,” wrote former Sharif ally Ayaz Amir in a column last month for Pakistan’s The News International newspaper.

Family dynasty

The brothers’ family fortune was established by their father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, who migrated to Pakistan from Amritsar, India, following partition in 1947 and founded a steel mill in Lahore.

But the policy of nationalization in the 1970s under Pakistan Peoples Party leader and prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto hit the Sharif family especially hard when the steel business was taken over – leading to a long-standing political rivalry and enmity between the Sharifs and Bhuttos.

The emergence of military strongman and Islamist Zia ul-Haq changed all that.

After Mr. Bhutto was deposed in a coup in 1977, the brothers backed the general. Nawaz Sharif rose through the ranks, leading key ministries in military-led governments. The Sharifs regained their steel mill and expanded the family business into textiles, sugar mills and agriculture, becoming among the wealthiest families in Pakistan.

As the prime minister who came into power in democratic elections in 1990, held after the general’s death in a plane crash, Mr. Sharif eventually served twice as prime minister – dismissed in 1993 over corruption and poor governance allegations and overthrown in 1999 by the army after just two years in office.

Over the past two decades, the Sharifs and Bhuttos have emerged as the two most powerful political families in Pakistan. The enmity calmed after a 2006 agreement signed between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. The Charter of Democracy committed both politicians to strengthening the civilian government and curbing the power of the military.

Since Ms. Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, the Sharifs have tangled with her widower, President Asif Ali Zardari – with Shahbaz Sharif delivering the sharpest attacks, referring to him as “Ali Baba” and his cabinet as “the 40 thieves.”

Out of power for the past five years, though, Nawaz Sharif has relied on his younger brother’s achievements as outgoing chief minister of Punjab.

Shabhaz has been credited with gains in public health and curbing a dengue epidemic, and improving enrolment and attendance – of students as well as teachers – in Punjab schools. Other projects, such as awarding free laptops to students, have been called gimmicks.

He is said to want to lead the Ministry of Water and Power, but his older brother wants him to stay on as Chief Minister in Punjab – the family stronghold.

It is nearly 11 p.m on Thursday, the last official day of campaigning.

In Lahore, the older Sharif is making one last pitch to be prime minister: “If you give us five years, you will see that we can change the fate of this country.”

In Manga Mandi, Shahbaz Sharif steps onto the stage to tell the audience that, with its help, his brother, Nawaz, will be prime minister after Saturday. And he promises electricity. “Or my name is not Shahbaz Sharif,” he shouts in a voice strained by a gruelling schedule. Five minutes later, he is back in his car and heading to one more rally.

Next time the electricity goes off, though, fewer in Manga Mandi may be laughing.

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