Sharif's day of triumph after exile and jail

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"Our tiger has triumphed," chanted an ecstatic crowd of Nawaz Sharif supporters in his heartland of Lahore yesterday as a cavalcade of motorcycles, festooned with Pakistan Muslim League-N flags (PML-N) sped past, lights flashing and horns beeping.

In a remarkable reversal of fortunes, the former prime minster defeated a slew of figures loyal to the man who ousted him in a military coup, jailed him for more than a year and forced him into exile until November.

This time last year, when he spent most of his time between his Park Lane residence and his Duke Street office in London, few could have imagined he would win the second highest number of seats in parliament and be poised to join the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in forming a national government.

It could have been very different. When he first attempted to return to Pakistan in September, he was deported to Saudi Arabia within four hours of landing at Islamabad.

The source of Mr Sharif's success appears to have been his ability to harness the resentment that has risen against Pervez Musharraf over the past year. Though having entered politics as the protégé of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's longest serving military dictator, the wealthy industrialist attracted considerable support in the heart of Punjab by arguing that the military had no place in politics.

"This country belongs to 160 million people, not 16 generals," he boomed in front of an adoring crowd at a rally last week. Mr Sharif was not always popular during two brief terms in government, which collapsed under weight of allegations of corruptions and misrule. Indeed, when Mr Sharif was ousted in a coup led by Mr Musharraf, many supported the action.

Critics contend that Mr Sharif's return to the political scene may have been motivated by revenge. Over recent years, he has managed to draw closer to his traditional rivals in the PPP.

At a restaurant in Lahore's old city, where supporters were intently watching the results pile in on a cable news channel, the loudest cheers were triggered by the domino-like tumble of most of Mr Musharraf's cabinet as a wave of anti-government feeling translated into votes for the PML-N in seats stretching down the Grand Trunk Road to Rawalpindi.

Many of the ministers had once been members of Mr Sharif's cabinet and defected with the bulk of his party in 2001. He is still wounded by what he calls their betrayal.

In keeping with the anti-Musharraf theme, focused on the sacking of the judiciary and the muzzling of the media. Given the populist nature of Pakistani politics, memories of Mr Sharif's own assaults on the Supreme Court and the press receded. "These were regrettable incidents," said a senior party member, "but we have learned from our mistakes and will settle for nothing short of the independence of the judiciary and the media."