Two of the most powerful men in Pakistan’s politics met in London on Thursday as bitter divisions following the removal of former prime minister Imran Khan played out in the UK.
Three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the elder brother of new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, met Bilalwal Bhutto Zardari, the head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in London.
Traditional foes the PPP and Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) allied to force Mr Khan from office earlier this month in a no-confidence vote. The charismatic Mr Khan blamed his loss of office on a foreign-backed conspiracy and has vowed to push for early elections with protests on the streets.
Analysts said the meeting in London would see Mr Bhutto Zardari press his claims for a series of key political posts in the country as the two parties position themselves before elections that must be held by October next year.
Their parties are the two biggest in the coalition and have dominated Pakistani politics for decades.
Nawaz Sharif, 72, has been in London since 2019 after being given permission by a court to travel abroad for four weeks for treatment while on bail during a seven-year jail sentence for corruption. Senior party officials said he was planning to return to Pakistan.
Mr Sharif is seen as the power behind his younger brother, who is viewed as a hard-working and uncharismatic technocrat. “It’s a very tightly-knit family-run operation,” said Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, an author on Pakistan’s military and politics. “Being the elder brother … the voters look at him [Nawaz] and he is the one they will vote for, not the brother.”
Mr Bhutto Zardari — the son of the murdered former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and son of former president Asif Ali Zardari — had been expected to be named foreign minister as part of the coalition deal, but no announcement was made before he travelled to London.
The newly-appointed finance minister, Miftah Ismail, said on Thursday that he would also visit Mr Sharif in London on his way to Washington to talk with International Monetary Fund officials about Pakistan’s troubled economy.
Mr Sharif’s residence in the upmarket Mayfair district of London has been the focus of protests from supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of Mr Khan, who has a strong following among the large diaspora in the UK. The PTI has called for another demonstration outside his mansion home on Sunday.
In an apparent tit-for-tat move, PML-N supporters demonstrated in south-west London last weekend outside the home of Jemima Goldsmith, whose marriage to the former wife of ex-prime minister ended in divorce 18 years ago.
“This is a video of hundreds of men protesting for hours outside my 88-year-old mother’s house in Surrey yesterday,” she wrote on Twitter. “The man with the tannoy is threatening: ‘If Jemima and her children don’t come down here, then we will enter her bedroom’.”
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn described the protest as a “despicable affair” in an editorial.
“Political discourse in the country has become so vulgar and polarising, that it is hard to see common sense prevailing and parties pulling back from the brink,” it said.
London police attended the protest but made no arrests.
“At this time we are not aware of any threats made during the protest that would have given officers cause to act,” a Metropolitan police spokesman said.