LONDON/ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: The top leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) converged on the British capital ahead of what is billed as a key consultative meeting that will decide both the party’s and the government’s position on what steps to take next.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif both flew to London on Sunday to meet former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who also flew back from Saudi Arabia along with his son, Hussain, the same day.

Dismissing speculation about early elections, Nawaz Sharif said: “Rumours are always around but don’t believe them.”

He complained once again about his removal from power, saying that the falling stock market was a sign of what was happening to the economy. “When a government is weakened, the country gets weakened,” he said.

The former premier condemned the attacks on journalists Matiullah Jan and Ahmad Noorani. “It should be investigated why he [Mr Noorani] was targeted,” he said.

Shahbaz Sharif, who was accompanied by his son Salman, said upon arrival in London: “Elections will be held on time and there are no differences in the party or family.”

Leaders may advise Sharif to hand party reins to younger brother

The meeting is expected to last all day on Monday (today), and PM Abbasi is slated to return to Pakistan later in the day.

The former prime minister’s wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, is still receiving cancer treatment in the city.

Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif is expected to head to the UK from Saudi Arabia, and other cabinet ministers will also join the huddle.

The top-level consultations come as legal pressure on Nawaz Sharif and his immediate family builds in the wake of the Panama Papers judgement; his daughter and son-in-law have already been indicted in a corruption case.

The meeting follows a New York Times interview discussing Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s political ambitions, where she was quoted as saying that both her grandfather and her father had noticed her administrative abilities and that the family had decided that she should take the reins of the party. Although she later tweeted that the statement was wrongly ascribed to her, the interview and its retraction have increased speculation of a rift between Mr Nawaz and Mr Shahbaz.

Observers say that while the two men would never split over a policy issue, the question of succession is so toxic that it could drive a wedge between the two previously-united siblings.

The party is also trying to position itself for the 2018 elections. Both Nawaz Sharif and his daughter have stated that the cases against them are politically-motivated, but it is unclear how the PML-N voters will react if Nawaz Sharif decides to organise a prolonged campaign of defiance.

Saudi connection

Nawaz Sharif has just spent a week in Saudi Arabia and his decision to go to London was a change of plan; he had been expected to proceed directly from Jeddah to Pakistan, where his next hearing is scheduled for Nov 3.

Although his trip was initially described as a private one, Saudi officials greeted him at Jeddah airport and reports suggested that he did meet members of the royal family last Wednesday.

The PML-N insiders described the meetings with Saudi royals as positive and speculated that Mr Sharif would want to share details of these developments with PM Abbasi and other senior party leaders.

Two weeks ago, Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa also paid a ‘quiet’ visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. However, it is not clear whether the Nawaz Sharif situation was on the agenda.

Legal battle

One of the most important decisions that the ruling party is faced with is deciding whether Nawaz Sharif should return to Pakistan to appear before an accountability court on Nov 3, especially after the court had issued bailable arrest warrants in his name. If he does not return, these could be turned into non-bailable warrants.

The PML-N leadership is reportedly set to ask Mr Sharif to abandon his policy of confrontation with the judiciary and the military establishment and adopt a more “pragmatic approach”, at least until the Senate polls, which are due next March. Some may also advise him to step aside and let his younger brother Shahbaz lead the party until the 2018 elections.

Publicly, however, senior party leaders denied any such possibility, saying the entire party had complete faith in Nawaz Sharif’s leadership and there was no question of a change of command.

“Nawaz Sharif is our party head and he will continue to be the party head,” Minister for Privatisation Daniyal Aziz told Dawn.

He said the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) had tried hard to split the party, but had failed. “PTI and Sheikh Rashid’s tall claims about PML-N leaders leaving the party have proven untrue,” he said.

He recalled that even former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had denied this impression at a press conference on Saturday.

When asked about the meeting in London, he said party leaders were headed there to inquire after Begum Kulsoom.

“Nawaz Sharif planned to fly back to Pakistan to appear before the court, but the deteriorating condition of his wife did not allow him to return and he preferred to stay with her in London,” Mr Aziz said.

Climate Change Minister Mushahidullah Khan claimed that an artificial crisis had been created in the country, which was adversely affecting the national economy, development projects and politics as a whole.

“In this context, Nawaz Sharif — who is our party head — wants to give some guidelines to the government and the party, which is why the party high command is meeting in London,” he said.

“It is not a formal meeting, but top leaders were summoned to London by Mr Sharif to discuss important matters,” he added.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2017