KUALA LUMPUR: Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expects Malaysia's graft-tainted ruling party will hold general elections in coming months -- and could win big -- but he vowed Friday that he would fight "even a losing battle" on principle.

Mahathir, 97, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) will most likely "win big" in the event of snap polls.

He believes that many rural Malay voters have returned to UMNO because they were offered money and other incentives.

Elections are not due until September 2023, but some UMNO members, including ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak and party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who are both fighting graft charges, have been rallying for an earlier vote.

Mahathir was an UMNO prime minister for 22 years until his retirement in 2003.

Inspired to return to politics by the massive looting of the 1MDB state fund during Najib's term in office, Mahathir rode a wave of public anger and led the opposition to the historic victory in 2018 polls that ousted Najib's government.

Mahathir became the world's oldest head of government at 93, but his reformist alliance collapsed in less than two years due to defections. UMNO returned to power and now leads a new coalition government.

Mahathir said he believes Najib is hoping to make a political comeback with an UMNO win.

Najib, the son of Malaysia's second prime minister, has maintained his innocence.

He remains influential in UMNO and has a strong social media following. With his final appeal against his 12-year-jail sentence in the first of several trials ongoing in the country's top court, he will not be allowed to run in the event of an early election.

Mahathir said Najib should serve his sentence until he proved his innocence but on the contrary, he was allowed out on bail pending appeals and even flew to Singapore to visit his daughter.