Pakistan’s incoming prime minister Nawaz Sharif is assuming the reins of government for a historic third term in what is being described as a test of his political statesmanship and acumen.
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.
A hugely wealthy steel tycoon, considered strong on the economy but soft on the Taliban, he inherits enormous problems of sagging finances and a stifling energy crisis.
He seems soft-spoken and shy with international media but earned a reputation for combativeness during his two previous terms as PM, from 1990 to 1993, and from 1997 to 1999.
Veteran political analyst Talat Masood said the Sharif of 2013 is a different man from the hothead of the 1990s who riled Pakistan’s powerful military.
“I personally think that he has gained a lot in these last several years. He is a far more mature politician, he has understood the dynamics of the civil-military relationship,” Masood told AFP.
“He is a much more mature, balanced and experienced third-time prime minister.”
He has been seen as a pragmatist in the West but raised eyebrows by calling for peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, blamed for killing thousands of Pakistanis in the past six years.
And on Friday he publicly criticized a U.S. drone strike that killed the militants’ second-in-command in northwest Pakistan as a violation of sovereignty, echoing Islamabad’s longstanding complaint about the controversial missile attacks.
Born on December 25, 1949 into a wealthy family of industrialists in Lahore, the capital of Punjab and the political nerve center of Pakistan, Sharif took a law degree before joining his father’s steel company.
He entered politics and under the patronage of military dictator Zia-ul Haq became first finance minister and then chief minister of Punjab - a post he held for five years from 1985 until he was elected 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 Bhutto, before returning to power in a landslide in 1997.
With a huge majority behind him, he set about cementing his liberal economic policies and in 1998 won huge popularity when he made Pakistan a nuclear power, but his government buckled under tensions with the army, which seized power in 1999.
Sharif was sentenced in a military court to life imprisonment for hijacking and terrorism, but was allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000 and return in 2007.