in 1999, has a powerbase rooted in Pakistan's richest and most populous province, where he is known as the Lion of the Punjab.
Nawaz Sharif (2nd L), leader of political party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), sits on stage with members of his party at an election campaign rally in Islamabad. Reuters photo
Immaculately groomed and dressed always in a pristine shalwar kamiz with a sharply cut waistcoat, he has appeared relaxed and in control as he has flown around the country by private jet, addressing crowds of tens of thousands.
He has campaigned hard for his Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party, promising to fix the country's huge problems, focusing on the economy and the energy crisis, projecting himself as a statesman in waiting.
Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves to his supporters during an election rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. AP photo/Anjum Naveed
"The problems of this country are gigantic. You've got to fix the problem of power, that should be the first priority. It needs a lot of resources, hard work and the right policy," Sharif told AFP in an interview last week.
Prime minister twice already, from 1990 to 1993, and from 1997 to 1999, but softly spoken and shy with the international media, he has aroused suspicions in the West for opposing US drone strikes and American intervention.
He has also called for peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, blamed for killing thousands of Pakistanis in the past six years.
Sharif was born on December 25, 1949 into a wealthy family of industrialists in Lahore, the capital of Punjab and the political nerve centre of Pakistan.
He was educated privately at English-language schools and secured a degree in law from the University of Punjab before joining his father's steel company.
The family suffered hugely when Pakistan's centre-left prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nationalised private industry in the 1970s and as the elder son, Sharif was quickly dispatched into politics.
Under the patronage of military ruler, Zia-ul Haq, he became first finance minister and then chief minister of Punjab -- a post he held for five years from 1985 until he was elected prime minister in 1990.
A Pakistani police commandos makes way for Mian Nawaz Sharif, center, former Prime Minister and head of Pakistan Muslim League-N party leaves after speaking during an election campaign rally in Murree, near Islamabad. AP photo/Anjum Naveed
He beat arch-rival Benazir Bhutto in the polls and served a three-year term until he was sacked on corruption charges and replaced by Bhutto.
In 1997, he won a landslide two-thirds majority for his PML-N and set about cementing his liberal economic policies. He privatised state industries and built a high-speed motorway from the northwestern city of Peshawar to Lahore on the Indian border.
In 1998, he won huge popularity when he made Pakistan a nuclear power, but his government buckled under tensions with the army, which in 1999 seized power.
Sharif was sentenced in a military court to life imprisonment for hijacking and terrorism, before being allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000.
After seven years in the wilderness he was allowed to return in 2007 and his PML-N party came second in the 2008 election, won by the Pakistan People's Party on a wave of sympathy following the assassination of its leader Bhutto.
Corruption, tax evasion and money-laundering allegations against the Sharifs, who have a huge family estate near Lahore, have never been proved in court.
Sharif has promised, if elected a third time, to transform the country's economy, end corruption in state-owned enterprises build a motorway from Lahore to Karachi, Pakistan's business capital on the Arabian Sea, and launch a bullet train.
"There was no load-shedding (rolling blackouts), no bloodshed and no suicide attacks in our government. People lived in peace. Pakistan was a prosperous and developing country. We will bring that time again. We will change the fate of this country," he has said.
Analysts say Saturday's winner will have no option but to negotiate a fresh loan from the International Monetary Fund, to stave off a balance of payments crisis, but Sharif says he believes Pakistan can survive on its own resources.
His younger brother, Shahbaz, considered more intelligent but less charismatic than Nawaz, has been chief minister for the past five years of Punjab, where he has built bridges and inaugurated Pakistan's first metro bus service.
Sharif is married and has four children. His daughter Maryam has campaigned on his behalf in his Lahore constituency, earning praise for a charisma that has earmarked her out as his possible successor.