ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Three-time Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has never managed to see out a full term, heads into Thursday’s election on the brink of his biggest comeback to date.
The “Lion of Punjab,” is hotly favored to lead his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party to victory and once again take charge of the nuclear-armed nation of 240 million people.
It is a far cry from Pakistan’s last elections, in 2018, when less than three weeks before polling he was sentenced to 10 years in jail on graft charges and disqualified from holding public office.
Granted special bail to seek medical treatment in Britain, Sharif chose not to return, pulling the strings from abroad as his brother took charge after Imran Khan was kicked out of office in 2022.
Often draped in a red Gucci scarf, Sharif’s political fortunes have risen and fallen on his relationship with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment—the country’s true kingmakers.
The 74-year-old is one of the nation’s wealthiest men, with a fortune earned in the steel business, but is admired by supporters for his approachable “man of the soil” demeanour.
Nawaz first took power in 1990 with the blessing of the establishment, but was forced out three years later by corruption allegations—a theme that has dogged his career.
Between terms in power, he has spent years in jail or in exile—forced and voluntary—in Saudi Arabia and London, where the Sharif family have extensive luxury properties, only to return to Pakistan each time with renewed zeal.
Stung by the nationalisation of the family steel business—which he later regained control of—Sharif is a fiscal conservative and champion of economic liberalisation and free markets.
He oversaw the privatisation of several key state enterprises — including banks and energy producers — in a process critics say was riven by corruption.
He was also one of the key drivers of the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that has underpinned relations between Islamabad and Beijing in the last decade.
He was premier when Pakistan announced in 1998 that it had become a nuclear-armed power, weeks after India did the same.
During his various stints as prime minister he was accused of stacking courts with loyalist judges, tinkering with the constitution, and rigging provincial elections to shore up his party’s power bases.
His second term lasted two years and ended in 1999 with him deposed in a military coup after plotting to sideline army chief of staff Pervez Musharraf.
Sharif narrowly avoided the death sentence in a hastily convened trial before being sent into exile.
More than a decade later he was back in power in 2013, in part because of his brother’s diligent performance as chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and its most powerful constituency.
But fresh graft allegations emerged when his children were named in the 2016 Panama Papers leak for holding offshore companies.
He was later convicted over separate corruption allegations and disqualified from office for life — the third time that he failed to complete a full term.
Less than a year into a seven-year prison sentence he was granted permission to travel to the United Kingdom for medical care and then declined to return.
But with Khan falling spectacularly out of favour with the military, Sharif’s fortunes began to change last year.
His return has been smoothed by legal changes reducing the period lawmakers can be barred from elections.
One by one his convictions have been overturned or quashed in recent weeks, leaving the “Lion of Punjab” with the chance to roar again.