KUALA LUMPUR - Three years ago, former premier Najib Razak's name was toxic, causing his Barisan Nasional coalition to lose the general election for the first time in Malaysia's history.
But today he is enjoying renewed popularity and set for a political comeback, despite being convicted of corruption linked to the 1MDB scandal.
Two-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on Wednesday (Oct 27) raised the spectre of Najib returning to contest the next general election, saying it has taken a long time for the numerous criminal cases against him to make their way through the court process.
"When will the Court of Appeal decide on Najib? If (he is) found guilty, Najib will then appeal to the Federal Court," Tun Dr Mahathir wrote on his blog.
The election would likely be called before the Federal Court, the country's highest court, can come to a decision, he said. The next polls are due latest by September 2023, but could take place as soon as next year.
"Of course, (Najib) can (then) contest in the next general election," he added.
Najib, who served as prime minister for nine years until 2018, was sentenced to 12 years' jail last year for corruption linked to the misappropriation of funds from the now-defunct 1MDB state fund.
He has been allowed to stay out of prison pending his appeal and continues to be the MP for Pekan. If Parliament is dissolved, he cannot contest a parliamentary seat unless he is acquitted or receives a royal pardon.
Universiti Malaya sociopolitical analyst Awang Azman Pawi said: "If Najib is cleared of all charges, he will get the chance to prove he is clean, and he will use it as part of his campaign to say that he is not guilty, and that other parties wanted to sabotage and destroy his political career.
"But if his court case is not over yet, it will be difficult for him to make a comeback as Umno president and defend his seat in the next election."
However, University of Tasmania's Asia Institute director James Chin said: "Because of all these charges against him, the only way to protect himself, and also his family, is to be politically powerful."
Najib has himself indicated in an interview with Reuters last month that he will seek re-election to Parliament.
It was reported by The Star daily last month that there is a "gentlemen's agreement" between Najib and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on a "division of labour".
Najib will run Malaysia's largest party Umno if he wins the party presidency, while Datuk Seri Ismail runs the country.
Najib has seen a string of wins recently, which are helping to push him closer to a comeback.
The courts recently approved the return of his and his wife Rosmah Mansor's passports for them to attend the birth of his grandchild in Singapore.
He has also filed a suit against former attorney-general Tommy Thomas for alleged abuse of power in prosecuting him in several cases.
Meanwhile, a multibillion-ringgit pipeline project of his in Sabah that was scrapped by the Pakatan Harapan administration in 2018 for making questionable payments has been revived this year.
Some RM114 million (S$37 million) in cash, confiscated from a luxury condominium in a high-profile raid in 2018, was returned to him in June, after the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove that the money originated from 1MDB.
Some observers say Najib is accepted by the various factions in Umno, which is why he is spearheading the party's campaign for the Melaka state election next month.
But Professor Chin believes his support is limited to the Malay electorate.
"He has very little support among non-Malays; most of them believe that he is the main character besides Jho Low in the 1MDB scam," he said, referring to the fugitive businessman who is also alleged to have stolen billions of dollars from 1MDB and laundered it worldwide.
Segments of the Malay population who support Najib, said Prof Chin, believe that the charges against him were trumped up and "a political hatchet job".
It is only in the international arena that Najib's reputation is in tatters, he added.
"There is very little doubt that in the international arena, he is widely seen as... the man behind the 1MDB scam."