Nawaz Sharif’s rise to power in Pakistan came on the back of the military, which is now seen as his main political foe.
But his supreme court victory this week, allowing him to return from exile, has prompted calls from many Pakistanis for him to become more of a public agitator to champion their interests.
Such a role would inevitably pit Mr Sharif against Pakistan’s ruling military-led establishment – with General Pervez Musharraf expected to seek another five-year presidential term next month.
“The new battle lines are drawn between Nawaz Sharif and his people, and Gen Musharraf with the military behind him,” said one western diplomat.
Across Pakistan on Friday, Mr Sharif’s supporters offered prayers of thanksgiving as his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), began preparations for his return.
Mr Sharif, 57, who left Pakistan after being ousted by Gen Musharraf in a 1999 coup, seems very unlikely to accept the military’s influence in deciding his political future.
This is a far cry from the days when the scion of a Lahore industrial family entered politics, rising to national prominence when he was brought into the Punjab provincial government n the early days of General Zia ul-Haq’s martial law.
The late military dictator Zia seized power in 1977 and began a controversial 11-year rule, hanging the prime minister he overthrew, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – the father of Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s party (PPP) – on a trumped-up murder charge.
In those days, recalls a former general, Mr Sharif was “a figure embedded completed in the ranks of pro-military politicians”. From finance minister, Mr Sharif rose to become Punjab’s chief minister in 1988.
In the same year, Zia was killed in an air crash and Ms Bhutto became the Muslim world’s first woman prime minister – with Mr Sharif as her main political rival.
The two remained foes through the 1990s, each serving twice as the prime minister during the decade, only to be thrown out of office on charges of corruption.
But an eight-year battle with Gen Musharraf’s military government has raised Mr Sharif’s profile until he has become one of the few politicians who matter in charting the course for Pakistan’s return to democracy. “The question now is: how does Nawaz Sharif play his cards?” said Shahid Masood, a political commentator on Pakistan’s GEO TV channel.
In Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and home to 60 per cent of its population, pockets of PML-N voters have been strongly revitalised, particularly in Lahore, the provincial capital and Mr Sharif’s home town, where he is likely to return to live.
His friends like to point to his long political history. “If anything, Nawaz Sharif must know that confronting the military could mean bloodshed on the streets. Would he want to create more chaos when clearly this country needs stability?” asked a family friend.
In recent weeks, Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto have shown signs of fresh rivalry after Ms Bhutto – to the dismay of the Sharif camp – secretly met Gen Musharraf in Abu Dhabi to discuss her return from exile, possibly in a power-sharing role. Mr Sharif may hope to capitalise on the perception that she has sold out to the general.
Leading political figures are well aware that, without a common front, neither Mr Sharif nor Ms Bhutto has a chance of successfully confronting the military.
“The rhetoric against Benazir Bhutto aside, Nawaz Sharif knows he can’t make a bold comeback without the entire opposition, including the PPP, together,” said a friend of the PML-N leader.