Pakistani politics are dominated more by personalities than ideology. Here is a guide to the key figures to watch ahead of the general election on January 8.
-- President Pervez Musharraf isn't running and doesn't belong to a political party, but after the 1999 coup that brought him to power he co-opted what was left of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) to form his political base. Loyalties in the PML are questionable, and in a straight contest the party would probably suffer for supporting an increasingly unpopular president. People don't like his support for the United States because they believe it has made militancy a bigger problem in Pakistan. But the main grievance they have is that economic growth has not provided enough jobs while the cost of living has shot up.
-- Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party, has been prime minister twice before, but she is regarded as coming from outside the establishment. Her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister. He was overthrown and hanged by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, who as president promoted Islamist political values that Musharraf to some extent has tried to roll back. Benazir is charismatic, politically astute, and retains the populist appeal cultivated by her father. Harvard and Oxford educated, she hits all the right notes for Western allies when she talks about progressive ideals and standing up to extremism. Despite an amnesty that allowed her to return from eight years of self-imposed exile, Bhutto is tainted by corruption allegations she says are politically motivated.
-- Nawaz Sharif is the prime minister Musharraf overthrew in 1999 and then exiled a year later. He still leads the half of the Pakistan Muslim League that refused to line up behind Musharraf. A protege of former military leader General Zia-ul-Haq, Sharif can thank Saudi Arabia for persuading Musharraf to allow him back into Pakistan in time for the elections. Sharif is a product of the establishment from an industrialist family in Punjab, and Bhutto's bitter rival through the 1990s. He appeals to conservative, religious segments of Pakistan, and is seen as a politician more likely to appease radical Islamists than take them on.
Elected with an overwhelming mandate for a second term as prime minister in 1997, and having already changed the Constitution to curb the powers of the president, Sharif tried to remove all challenges by clamping down on media and cowing the Supreme Court. He eventually overreached himself by falling out with then army chief Musharraf, having already sacked the previous army chief.
He faces disqualification from the January election because of criminal convictions secured against him in the wake of his 1999 ouster. He says the cases were politically motivated.
-- The Chaudhrys of Gujrat, a Punjabi city north of Lahore, were picked to lead the rump of the Pakistan Muslim League by Musharraf's intelligence aides, according to Bhutto. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain is the chairman of the PML, and was prime minister for a month in 2004. His younger cousin Chaudhry Pervez Elahi was the chief minister of Punjab. Like Sharif, the Chaudhry's are seen as conservatives, sensitive to the religious lobby. They are also seen as pragmatic opportunists, whose main objective will be to hold onto whatever power they can.
(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore, editing by Sean Maguire)