| Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif(left) and his brother Shahbaz Sharif wave to supporters in Lahore
Islamabad, Nov 25 (Reuters): Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif made a successful comeback from exile on Sunday in his second attempt this year.
Ousted by President Pervez Musharraf in a bloodless military coup in 1999 and exiled to Saudi Arabia a year later, Sharif tried to return home in September, but was dispatched back to Jeddah within hours.
Musharraf reluctantly agreed to allow Sharif back this time, under pressure from Saudi King Abdullah, who was embarrassed by the kingdom's complicity in the exile of a Muslim leader.
Diplomats say it is hard to imagine Musharraf would let his old enemy become prime minister for a third time after polls due on Jan. 8, even if his party confounds expectations of an unfair vote to emerge a real force in the next parliament.
Musharraf's already sagging popularity tanked after he imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3, suspended the constitution, purged Supreme Court judges, detained thousands of opponents and slapped sweeping curbs on media.
Sharif's reappearance could trigger large-scale defections from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, made up of politicians who have backed General Musharraf's rule. Intelligence agencies assembled the PML from the remnants of Sharif's party.
Musharraf had let another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, return last month in the hope she would lend him support after the election, but their relations have become fraught since imposition of the emergency.
Musharraf has secured his presidency for now. New judges dismissed challenges to his re-election by parliament last month and he is expected to quit the army, his main constituency, within days to be sworn in as a civilian for a second five-year term.
But Musharraf's fear is the next parliament will be hostile.
Sharif, who will be 58 next month, served twice as prime minister, like Bhutto, during the 1990s.
The administrations of both leaders were dogged by graft accusations, and the country was virtually bankrupt after a decade of civilian rule was ended by Musharraf's military coup.
After the 1999 coup, Sharif was convicted of corruption and given a life sentence for hijacking, relating to his refusal to allow landing rights to an airliner carrying Musharraf.
He could be barred from standing for the January election because of the convictions.
But in terms of popularity, his absence has made the public grow fonder, as Sharif's defiance of Musharraf won him fresh support.
Sharif, whose party would find it easier to ally with Islamists than Bhutto's, was regarded as a creature of the establishment before his downfall.
Groomed by a military dictator, Sharif was picked as finance minister of Punjab in 1981, and became its chief minister in 1985. In 1990, Sharif became prime minister for the first time, after Bhutto was sacked.
As the first industrialist to rule Pakistan, Sharif tried to reverse socialist policies and open up the economy. Opposition parties accused him of selling state firms cheaply to friends.
His liberal economics did not extend to social policies. In 1991, he was embroiled in controversy after trying to make Islamic sharia law the supreme law of Pakistan.
In 1993, he ran foul of the then-president who dismissed his government on charges of nepotism and corruption. The Supreme Court later restored his rule but Sharif and the president failed to reconcile and both resigned.
Bhutto was no more successful on her second try as prime minister, and Sharif was back in power by 1996.
This time, strengthened by a big election win in 1997, he tightened his grip. He cracked down on the media and amended the constitution to strip the president of power to dissolve the National Assembly. A row with the judiciary led to the removal of the Supreme Court chief.
But political and economic problems mounted.
Tests in 1998 established Pakistan as a nuclear power, but resulted in international isolation.
A deteriorating relationship with Musharraf, whom Sharif had appointed army chief, became unsalvageable after a border conflict with India in 1999, months before the Oct. 12 coup.
Born into a Kashmiri family of industrialists on Dec. 15, 1949, in Lahore, Sharif took a law degree and worked in the family business before turning to politics. He has two sons and two daughters with wife, Kulsoom.