Pakistan's future government will be decided on Monday with the return to civil governance after eight years of military rule.
The following are profiles of politicians with most at stake in polls for national and provincial assemblies:
President Pervez Musharraf
While Monday's election is not a presidential election, the outcome of the vote is vital for PervezMusharraf's future.
|Musharraf became president in 2001 after leading|
a bloodless coup in 1999 [AFP]
A newly elected hostile parliament may try to impeach him for the "unconstitutional" way he got himself re-elected as president for a second five-year term by the outgoing assemblies, and imposed six weeks of emergency rule in November to get rid of judges who could have annulled his victory.Musharraf, 64, came to power as a general in a bloodless coup in 1999, ousting Nawaz Sharif, then prime minister.
He first became president in 2001. He quit as army chief in November, weakening links with the institution that has been the greatest source of his strength.
He has survived at least three allegedly al-Qaeda-inspired assassination attempts after becoming a US ally following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington DC.
The alliance with the US, and authoritarian responses to political challenges over the past year, has caused Musharraf's popularity to crash.
Benazir Bhutto's 51-year-old widower is not standing for election, but having been made joint chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), along with his 19-year-old son Bilawal, in accordance with Benazir's wishes, Zardari is calling the shots for a party that is likely to emerge with the largest number of seats.
Zardari has a reputation for warmth and loyalty to friends, but he is dogged by the nickname "Mr Ten Percent".
He spent a combined 11 years in jail for different charges.
|Zardari was made co-chairman of PPP after|
his wife Benazir Bhutto was killed [AFP]
Never convicted, he says the charges were politically motivated.
The government last month said it would pursue an old money-laundering case against Zardari in a Swiss court.
While it was Sharif who hounded Bhutto out of Pakistan and jailed Zardari, Musharraf kept Zardari in prison until 2004.
Even though he was regarded as a political liability for Bhutto, Zardari earned respect for the fortitude he showed during his time in jail.
Like his late wife, Zardari hails from a feudal land-owning family, though his assets were far smaller than those of the Bhuttos of Larkana.
Aside from Bilawal, he has two teenaged daughters.
Sharif, 58, is barred from standing for election.
He was prime minister twice in the 1990s.
His first government was fondly remembered by businessmen. The second ended in a coup with Pakistan almost bankrupt and he was sent into exile in 2000.
|Sharif was sent into exile in 2000 [AFP] |
The PML-N, otherwise known as the Nawaz League, cannot win, but Sharif hopes to recapture ground, particularly in central Punjab province, to keep pressure on Musharraf, or even bring him down if the PPP joins hands with him.
Known for a love for food and grand lifestyle, Sharif still possesses a common touch most other leaders lack.
Musharraf deported Sharif to Saudi Arabia when he tried returning in September last year, but had to let him come back in November because of pressure from King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch.
A protege of an earlier military ruler, Mohammad Zia-ul Haq, Sharif sometimes displays colours of a pro-Western liberal, but he has also cultivated ties with the religious constituency over the years.
Critics say he mixed pragmatism in foreign policy with conservatism and liberalism domestically.
Sharif has yet to earn Washington's trust. George Bush, the US president, has said Sharif should prove his commitment to battling against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Chaudhrys of Gujrat are an influential political family in Punjab.
|Elahi is seen as a conservative sensitive to|
the religious lobby [AFP]
They worked with intelligence agencies to herd support for Musharraf by taking over Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML).
While called the PML, it is usually referred to as PML-Q, or Q League, to differentiate it from Sharif's wing, PML-N.
Elahi, a former chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan's richest and most populous province, is a cousin of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the PML-Q president.
A recent survey by US-based International Republican Institute said only five per cent of people saw Elahi as the best person to handle Pakistan's problems.
Regarded by their critics as opportunists, the Chaudhrys are seen as conservatives who are sensitive to the religious lobby but who have failed to help Musharraf set a more liberal agenda.
The PPP's vice-chairman could very well become the next prime minister.
|Faheem is the vice-chairman of the PPP and |
a longstanding Bhutto family loyalist [AFP]
Many people believe Musharraf regards Faheem as acceptable as he doesn't take hard positions.
Also a large land owner in his native Sindh province, Faheem has been loyal to the Bhutto family throughout.
He served in the cabinet of Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister, who was toppled and hanged by the military in the late 1970s.
He also served in Bhutto's two governments, and led the party during her eight years in self-exile.
He declined the position of prime minister offered to him by Musharraf after a 2002 general election.