What kind of prime minister was Nawaz Sharif, who twice held Pakistan’s premiership in the 1990s, defied Washington, tested a nuclear bomb and is touted as likely to win a third term in Saturday’s national election?

He was power-obsessed, arrogant, impulsive, unwilling to collaborate — and that’s according to his friends and most loyal supporters.

But now, they say, there’s a new Sharif: a mature statesman who is the best choice to lead his crisis-prone country at a time when its seesaw alliance with the United States is more vital than ever to combating Islamist extremism and ending the war in Afghanistan.

Some analysts say Sharif, 63, emerged chastened and mellower after his fall from power in a 1999 military coup, a humiliating stint in prison and several years in exile. If his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, wins the most seats in Parliament and he again becomes premier, they say, he is likely to maintain cordial relations with Washington and tread gingerly with Pakistan’s powerful military, while first bearing down on his country’s serious economic woes.

Born into wealth, Sharif is a free-market advocate whose return to office would delight Pakistani businessmen, who are reeling from years of energy shortages that have threatened to destroy several industrial sectors. His pledges to end power blackouts and natural gas shortages play well in places such as the major eastern city of Lahore — the capital of Sharif’s stronghold, Punjab province — where electricity goes off up to 15 hours a day.

Pakistan party manifestos ahead of election

“I know the problems of Pakistan better than anyone does,” Sharif told supporters last week at a rally in Sheikhupura, a factory city outside Lahore. “A mistake on May 11 will take Pakistan very far from progress.”

Concerns for military, U.S.

Sharif has been a force in politics for 30 years, joined at the hip with his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who just wrapped up five years as chief minister of Punjab, doling out development funds and public projects to secure his brother’s base. But even with their massive machine, Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to win an outright majority of seats in Parliament and will probably have to broker a coalition.

Sharif, a religious conservative whom critics describe as soft on militant groups, also has promised to recalibrate Pakistan’s counterterrorism partnership with the United States, which many Pakistanis want to see severed.

Sharif has long advocated civilian supremacy over the military, which remains the dominant force in Pakistan’s foreign policy and national security. The generals have always been wary of him, even more so now because of his recent calls to take Pakistan out of the U.S. battle against Islamist extremists, including those sheltering on Pakistani soil.

But Pakistan’s military is different today than 14 years ago, when then-army chief Pervez Musharraf toppled Sharif. Its current leader, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, says he is committed to democracy, and Musharraf is under house arrest in Islamabad, facing charges related to his autocratic rule after an ill-
advised bid to join this year’s race.

The conflict in Afghanistan would remain a major threat to Pakistan’s stability if a settlement with the Afghan Taliban isn’t reached ahead of the pullout of U.S.-backed NATO combat troops by the end of next year. Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, with its historically deep ties to the Afghan Taliban, holds some sway in bringing insurgents to the table, but Kabul remains highly distrustful of Pakistan’s motives. The nations are frequently locked in conflict.

Sharif’s policy toward Kabul appears status quo, said Moeed Yusuf, a Pakistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “Basically, he doesn’t have an independent foreign policy stance,” Yusuf said.

If Sharif regains office, Yusuf said, he might increase diplomacy with the Afghan Taliban “and then have contingency plans if there is complete civil war and chaos.”

Sharif has said that he is open to negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, a virulently anti-state group that is allied with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, seeks to impose Islamic law in Pakistan and has staged attacks that have killed thousands of Pakistani troops and citizens.

“You can’t solve all the problems through guns and bullets. You’ve got to also explore other options,” Sharif said in a recent interview with an Indian TV network. “In many countries, problems have been solved by sitting across the table.”

The domestic insurgents have spared Sharif and his campaign while mounting successive attacks on other candidates and threatening to kill voters. Since April, when campaigning began, the death toll from political violence has climbed to more than 110.

The army will not negotiate with extremists unless they disarm and “unconditionally submit to the state, its constitution and the rule of law,” Kayani said last month. Many analysts say that if the insurgency prevails in Afghanistan, the emboldened Taliban will step up support for Pakistani militants, raising the prospect of a wider war against Islamabad.

‘A man we can work with’

During his first stint as prime minister, from 1990 to 1993, Nawaz privatized banks and telecommunications. In his second, from 1997 to 1999, he meted out public funds for voter-friendly projects, including a motorway from Islamabad to Lahore and a giveaway of hundreds of yellow cabs to boost small business.

He built nationalist fervor with nuclear tests in 1998 to counter India’s bomb. Yet he also strengthened ties with the longtime foe and reached agreements to reduce the prospect of war.

Sharif emerged, at least in some Washington eyes, as flexible when he helped defuse a nuclear crisis in 1999 after Musharraf sent troops to seize territory in the Kargil district of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

A mini-war erupted nonetheless, and Sharif’s detente with India was derailed. Sharif met then-president Bill Clinton on July 4, 1999, to map out a cease-fire agreement. The episode sparked an enmity between Sharif and Musharraf that peaked with the coup and the prime minister’s exile to Saudi Arabia. He returned in 2007.

“This is a man we can work with; we have worked with him before,” said Bruce Riedel, a former member of Clinton’s National Security Council who was at that meeting and has stayed in touch with Sharif. “I have no doubt that he has changed and, I hope, matured.”

Sharif’s advisers say he harbors no bitterness toward Musharraf. But addressing party faithful in Sheikhupura, Sharif reminded the crowd of his travails and the circle of history.

“One should be fearful before God,” he said. “The dictator who said he would never go is now facing trial!”

But the main business at hand was purely transactional: promises in exchange for votes.

“Nawaz Sharif is not among those who forget the love of the people,” the candidate said, as his fans held up stuffed lions and tigers, symbols of his party.

“I will give you a medical college,” Sharif pledged.

The supporters screamed their approval.

“There will be a sports stadium here,” the candidate promised.

The supporters roared.

After about 25 minutes of this, the sunlight began to fade. “Babar Sher” — the lion, as supporters call Sharif — expressed regrets, but his helicopter was waiting, and he had to return to Lahore.

“I am going back with your love,” he said. “Give your love to Nawaz Sharif, and Nawaz Sharif will return your love for the rest of his life.”