KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - Malaysia's longest-serving leader Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad saw a "50-50 chance" that former premier Najib Razak will eventually receive a royal pardon in a case linked to 1MDB, the state fund that had billions of dollars siphoned and spread across the globe.
Dr Mahathir, who was prime minister twice, said Malaysia's King could extend a pardon to Najib in the same way current opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was given one back in 2018.
Dr Mahathir sought a full royal pardon for his former ally after they joined forces to win the elections that year on the back of public anger over Najib's handling of 1MDB.
Their victory over Najib's United Malays National Organisation (Umno) saw the party lose power for the first time in six decades.
However, Dr Mahathir, 97, fell out with Datuk Seri Anwar over the timeline to hand over power, leading to a collapse of the government and the formation of a new administration with the support of Umno lawmakers.
The party eventually came back to power after the Malaysian monarch determined that Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob had the backing of a majority of lawmakers to become prime minister.
Najib has since rehabilitated his image by criticising the economic policies of subsequent governments and publicly maintaining his innocence in the 1MDB scandal.
This has helped him to lead Umno to a series of state election victories.
"Suppose he is convicted and he's jailed - of course he's going to ask for a pardon," Dr Mahathir told Bloomberg News in his office in the administrative capital of Putrajaya.
"There is that 50-50 chance that he will succeed in getting a pardon and returning to politics. He will come back and he wants to become the prime minister once again," added Dr Mahathir.
Representatives for Najib declined to comment.
Najib has pleaded not guilty for all the charges related to 1MDB.
In Dr Mahathir's second term as prime minister from 2018, dozens of criminal charges were filed against Najib for corruption, money laundering and criminal breach of trust.
Najib is in court this week for a final appeal to overturn his 12-year prison sentence in a case involving 42 million ringgit (S$13.05 million) of funds belonging to SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB.
His hearing will run until Aug 26. If the court upholds Najib's conviction, he will go to jail and will not be able to contest in elections that must be held by September 2023.
Factions within Umno are already calling for early national elections after a strong showing in local polls, but Prime Minister Ismail said he would hold one only at the right time as there were existing concerns to deal with, including inflation.
Mr Ismail said he was also focused on resolving a controversy over a contract worth billions of ringgit for littoral combat ships before deciding on when to hold the elections.
A Public Accounts Committee this month published a report saying that none of the six warships had been completed or delivered despite the government spending six billion ringgit so far.
Najib was in power when the procurement process was under way, with the first ship due for delivery in 2019, and five others in stages by this month.
The scandal, Dr Mahathir said, has already become an issue, with elections likely to be called some time next year despite calls from Umno factions to do so earlier.
"Can you imagine, they allocated six billion ringgit for six ships and not one was built, not even one," said Dr Mahathir. "It's mind blowing."
A national election this time around would be much closer, Dr Mahathir said, and no party is likely to win outright.
His new party could form a minority government and Dr Mahathir said he did not rule out a coalition with Mr Anwar again despite earlier squabbles over succession plans.
Still, Dr Mahathir said he is not interested in becoming prime minister for a third time.
He has had several coronary bypass operations and suffered three heart attacks.
Dr Mahathir recently had a pacemaker installed and earlier this year told reporters he would not contest again due to poor health and age.
"These people get very upset if I say I'm not contesting," he said of his party.
"So if I'm healthy enough - if they still want me - I cannot deny them, even if it kills me."