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The ex-cricket star vs. the comeback kid: Who will be nuclear-armed Pakistan's next leader?

Pakistanis will elect a new leader on Saturday under the shadow of the Taliban. NBC's Waj Khan reports from Lahore.

A former playboy cricketer and an ex-prime minister who was deposed by a military coup and then exiled will square off in a historic general election this weekend as Pakistan elects a new leader.

When Pakistanis head to the polls on Saturday, it will mark the first time in the country's 65-year history that a legislature has completed its term, paving the way for the possibility of a peaceful transition of power from one civilian government to the next.

The nuclear-armed country has been ruled by the military for half its history. Secretary of State John Kerry has met Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani twice in the last five weeks, underlining how crucial Washington views the relationship. However, the 2011 raid to kill Osama bin Laden and U.S. drone strikes targeting militants have damaged ties.

Of the nation's 90 million potential voters, 40 million could be voting for the first time. The general election comes as the country battles domestic insurgencies, a floundering economy, and unpredictability across the border in Afghanistan. 

In a campaign punctuated by violence -- including the gunpoint kidnapping of a leading politician's son at a political rally on Thursday -- uncertainty still prevails. Here is a look at the key players in this weekend's contest.

TOPPLED, EXILED, RESURRECTED? Nawaz Sharif

Once considered a protege of the country's powerful army, Sharif served two non-consecutive terms as prime minister in the 1990s before his relationship with the military deteriorated. He was ousted in a coup and replaced by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, and exiled to Saudi Arabia.

Polls suggest he could make a comeback in a very close and still shifting contest.

Known to be a religious conservative personally, Sharif's first term in office was marked by efforts to increase the role of Islam in government, including trying to introduce Shariah law through parliament.

Pakistan became a nuclear state during his second term in office. Sharif also built a reputation for launching large-scale, economic initiatives to spur development, including power, transportation, and technology projects.

Aamir Qureshi / AFP/ Getty Images

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves to supporters during an election campaign meeting in Rawalpindi on Tuesday

Now the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, the 63-year-old finds his base of support in the country's largest, most populous province of Punjab. 

Shamila Chaudhary, former director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council, said Sharif was likely to need to build a coalition government, which would help to define his policies.

"When Sharif was last in power, he engaged with the United States at a time when the bilateral relationship was not so heavily defined by terrorism and the war in Afghanistan," said Chaudhary, who is now a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group. "His hands will be tied in how much he can pursue on security cooperation without it being at the expense of the support he will need in parliament to sustain his coalition, if he wins."

Reuters noted that Sharif "has been accused of failing to act against militant groups which have a breeding ground in Punjab" and that is "one of the few major politicians not on the hit-list of Taliban insurgents who have vowed to disrupt the elections."

The Associated Press added:

Sharif's party controlled the government of Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, in 2011 when it turned down more than $100 million in U.S. aid following the raid that killed bin Laden. 

It quoted Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., as saying it appeared unlikely that Sharif would give up the more than $1 billion in American aid Pakistan receives annually if he came to power.

THE SPORTS LEGEND: Imran Khan

The former world-class cricketer and philanthropist has made a 16-year journey to come as close as he's ever been to the top office.

Khan is riding a wave of support for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Movement for Justice party, particularly among Pakistan's younger voters.

Rehan Khan / EPA

Former cricket star Imran Khan (center) is mobbed by supporters at a rally in Karachi, Pakistan, on Tuesday.

Dismissed in previous campaigns as a non-contender, the charismatic Khan has this time managed to translate his national popularity into support at the polls by selling himself as the anti-establishment man. He's juggled a sometimes-extremist message to appeal to Pakistan's conservative base with a social media campaign to mobilize much of the country's disenfranchised youth.

However, Khan's ideas -- which include the cessation of all hostilities with militants and a halt to CIA drone attacks  -- have earned him the teasing but telling moniker "Taliban Khan" from members of the country's Westernized elite.

A fiery and frenetic campaigner, Khan tumbled from a platform at a rally in Lahore this week, surviving with a few fractures. However, he was forced to suspend his final campaign events.

Without a traditional, regional base of support, as the other parties have, the 60-year-old Khan has been forced to carve out inroads into opposition territory. He hopes that will translate into enough votes to remain influential in a possible coalition government.

A survey released on Wednesday showed 24.98 percent of voters nationally planned to vote for Khan's party, just a whisker behind Sharif's PML-N.

Imran Khan, a former cricket superstar who has been drawing huge crowds to campaign rallies in Pakistan ahead of Saturday's election, was injured after falling off a crane that was taking him onto a stage at an election rally in Lahore. NBC's Waj Khan reports from Lahore.     

Khan began his campaign by refusing to join any coalition, then softened his stance to say he'd consider coalitions with smaller parties. His position could evolve again in the coming days.

"Khan has made himself a force to be reckoned with, he can't be dismissed as he was in the past," Chaudhary said. "They [his party] may not get that many seats, but they've made the PML-N and PPP (Pakistan People's Party) worried about their chances."

Khan, who helped Pakistan win the cricket World Cup in 1992, has vowed to crack down on corruption.

His party's manifesto says "Pakistan will endeavor to have a constructive relationship with the U.S. based on Pakistan's sovereign national interests and international law, not on aid dependency." 

THE POTENTIAL KINGMAKER: Asif Ali Zardari

The widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto inherited her family's political legacy and base of support in the southern province of Sindh.

He led the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) party to power after his wife's assassination in 2007 and became the president of Pakistan.

Vahid Salemi / AP

Asif Ali Zardari

The party's government made history as the first to complete a five-year term in office, but was marred by accusations of ineptitude and corruption as the country spiraled into an energy shortage, economic crisis, and security strife.

Zardari fought off several attempts to unsettle or unseat him, led in part by the country's Supreme Court which sought to revive old corruption charges. His government, and party, suffered several high-level shake-ups as a result, but Zardari managed to survive.

It is Zardari's skill as a shrewd politician and his ability to cut deals with other parties that some believe could make him, and his party, key influencers in forming the next government of Pakistan, even if they don't win a majority.

"The bottom line is, you can't actually discount the PPP," Chaudhary said. "People think they're done, they're unpopular, they did a bad job, but they'll have a fair amount of influence because of their relationship with other parties."

The Associated Press noted: 

Zardari and the PPP have always struggled with a domestic perception that they are American stooges — an unpopular position in a country where anti-American sentiment is widespread. The view from Washington, though, has been that Pakistan is not doing enough to combat militancy within its borders

CONNECTORS & DISRUPTORS:

In a tight election where the margin of victory may be slim, the weeks that follow the vote will be the most important, as party leaders negotiate to form a functioning coalition government.

Reuters explained:

Voters will elect 272 members of the National Assembly and to win a simple majority, a party would have to take 137 seats. 

However, the election is complicated by the fact that a further 70 seats, most reserved for women and members of non- Muslim minorities, are allocated to parties on the basis of their performance in the contested constituencies. To have a majority of the total of 342, a party would need 172. 

In a coalition scenario, second-tier operators like Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain (leader of the PML(Q) party) and Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman (leader of the JUI(F) party) could become key dealmakers and both have histories of working with players along the entire political spectrum to maintain political relevancy.

Smaller parties like the MQM, led by leader-in-exile Altaf Hussain, and the ANP, headed by Pashtun leader Asfandyar Wali, have been relentlessly targeted by the Pakistani Taliban, and could throw off the balance of power by boycotting the elections or the political dealmaking that follows as a form of protest.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

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