MANSEHRA - The frontrunner in Pakistan’s election race, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, kicked off his party’s election campaign on Monday from Mansehra, attracting tens of thousands to a rally at which he promised development and economic success.

Pakistan became a nuclear power in May 1998 during Nawaz’ second term as prime minister. He was ousted by Musharraf the following year.

“Last time we carried out nuclear explosions. Now we will carry out economic explosion,” he told the crowd.

Pakistan’s economy has suffered much from terrorism and power crisis but above all it was unprecedented corruption and mismanagement during the five years rule of outgoing Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition government which has totally messed up the financial condition of the state.

At the packed stadium in Mansehra, a stronghold of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, he promised steps for the creation of Hazara province if people voted the party into his party. Nawaz also said they would construct an airport in Mansehra area and build a motorway from Hasan Abdal to Mansehra.

Two police officials estimated the crowd at up to 30,000, in contrast to the hundreds who greeted former military ruler Pervez Musharraf on his return to Pakistan Sunday after four years in exile to contest the polls.

Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Pakistan, but indicators suggest the PML-N is likely to emerge the biggest winner from the general election on May 11, which will mark the country's first democratic transition of power.

The stadium was decorated with large portraits of Nawaz and banners reading "Tiger of Pakistan, we love you" and "Welcome prime minister of Pakistan, pride of Pakistan". The PML-N's election symbol is a tiger and the rally featured a live tiger in a cage.

Militant attacks and record levels of violence against the Shias have raised fears about security for the polls in the nation of 180 million.

Nawaz ordered a bullet-proof screen around his podium to be removed, a move greeted with loud applause. But security was extremely tight with police commandos patrolling with AK-47s and a buffer zone ringed with barbed wire around the stage.

As prime minister, Nawaz Sharif earned praise for economic reforms and for building a motorway from the northwestern city of Peshawar to the northeastern city of Lahore. He promised that if elected a third time, he would build a motorway from Lahore to Karachi, Pakistan's business capital on the Arabian Sea.

“I am not fond of power, I only want to see my country progressing and my people prosper,” he told the crowd. Wearing a traditional dark grey turban offered to him by local leaders, he urged them to vote for ‘Pakistan’.

Nawaz Sharif was first elected prime minister in 1990 but sacked three years later on corruption charges. He returned to power in 1997 after an election but was ousted in the 1999 coup by Musharraf and was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000. He returned in November 2007 just before the February 2008 general election, won by the PPP on a wave of support following the assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.