He was deposed in a military coup, sent to jail and forced into exile. But now, former Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif has made a triumphant election comeback.

Pakistan is a nation where the years since independence have been dominated by military coups, assassinations and, to this day, instability. Saturday's elections were themselves set against a backdrop of intimidation and attacks by the Taliban.

The greatest failing of the previous government was that there was hardly any input from the civilian side, and it was completely delegated to the military leadership, to handle and tackle the militancy situation .... There was so much of confusion whether we were fighting our own war, or [whether] we were fighting the American war. " 

Talat Masood, former Pakistani army general 

But Pakistanis defied the threats of violence and turned out to vote in record numbers. The result should see a civilian government hand power over to another for the first time in the country's 66-year history.

Sharif has declared victory for his PML-N, or Muslim League, party. He is expecting a big lead, but not an overall majority, and he will need to build a coalition.

Sharif, 63, has been prime minister of Pakistan twice before in the 1990s. He won huge popularity in 1998 when he made Pakistan a nuclear power.

But just a year later his tense relations with the army broke down completely, and he was deposed in a military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf. He went into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000, returning seven years later.

His PML-N party came second in the last election in 2008. Sharif favours liberal economic policies and has called for peace talks with Taliban.

There is a tight race for second place between the Movement of Justice Party (PTI), headed by cricketing hero Imran Khan, and the Pakistan People's Party, dominated by the Zardari and Bhutto families.

Voter turnout for the election was said to be close to 60 percent, well up on the 44 percent who voted in 2008.

Sharif's popularity is largely confined to his native Punjab Province. It is home to nearly 60 percent of Pakistan's 180 million population, it is the most developed and the most prosperous.
In contrast to that are the troubled regions bordering Afghanistan and Iran. Balochistan, for example, occupies 44 percent of Pakistan's total land mass, but accounts for just five per cent of the population.

Then there are the tribal areas, where the government has little control, and the Khyber area in the far north west.

So, can Nawaz Sharif lead the country away from its troubled past? And what does the future hold for Pakistan?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter David Foster, is joined by guests: Mosharraf Zaidi, diplomat and adviser to the last Pakistani government; Rasul Baksh Rais, author of the book: State, Society and Democratic Change in Pakistan; and Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general.

"This election was partly about a total rejection of the Taliban in terms of what they been saying and what they were trying to impose through fear, in terms of democracy. So the people of Pakistan have chosen democracy,  but they've done something else … they voted in large numbers for the two parties that prefer to talk to the Taliban, in addition to other measures, rather than the other parties which prefer to fight with the Taliban, in addition to other measures."

- Mosharraf Zaidi, diplomat and adviser to the previous Pakistani government 

Source: Al Jazeera