Kuala Lumpur (AFP) - Malaysia will hold polls soon, embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak said Thursday, vowing "to fight until the death" and showing no sign of succumbing to calls to quit over a massive financial scandal.
It was the first time the Malaysian leader has signalled he may bring forward polls not due until mid-2018, as he addressed the annual assembly of his ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and called for party unity.
"I know, many can feel the heat ... and are waiting for directions to battle in the polls that will be held soon," he said.
Speaking to some 2,600 delegates of UMNO, which represents the Malay heartland whose support is crucial for any Malaysian leader, Najib promised to uphold Islam and protect the community's interests.
The party has been in power ever since independence in 1957 and its annual gathering is the country's most closely watched political event.
"God willing, we will fight until the death and until the last drop of blood," Najib told delegates, who had earlier greeted him with enthusiastic applause, signalling their support for his leadership.
"Please realise my (Malay) race, do not falter for a moment as we are facing unprecedented challenges," he added.
Ruslee Bedol, a delegate from southern Johor state, told AFP that UMNO had already started preparing for a vote and said "we expect elections in the next six months."
UMNO has dominated multi-cultural Malaysia for decades, enshrining policies that favour the Malay majority.
But the large ethnic Chinese minority and a new generation of other voters have flocked to the opposition in disgust over racial politics and persistent accusations of corruption and democratic abuses.
But since former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed in 2015 on sodomy charges, the political opposition has fractured.
-- Malay 'nightmare' --
Najib warned his Malay-Muslim voter base that if the opposition won the election it would be a "nightmare" for rural Malays, who are largely dependent on government handouts.
Najib is holding on to power despite damaging allegations he took part in the alleged looting of billions in state fund 1MDB.
Najib, 63, and 1MDB deny wrongdoing.
The UMNO gathering comes just two weeks after some 20,000 people took to the streets in the capital, demanding Najib's resignation.
His position in the party and grip on power is said to be strong as he is backed by most of the 191 powerful UMNO division chiefs.
Few expect him to quit or be toppled.
"He may see that relinquishing power would enable his opponents to go after him. So it makes more sense to stay on," Chong Ja Ian, a political analyst from the National University of Singapore, told AFP.
Najib has also purged the party of critics over the 1MDB scandal, which he mentioned only once in his speech.
He fired his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin last year after being criticised over the 1MDB scandal, shook up his cabinet and surrounded himself with party loyalists.
Malaysia has been seized since last year by the financial fiasco, which has sparked investigations in several countries.
The US Justice Department -- which has filed lawsuits to seize assets it says were purchased with stolen 1MDB money -- says the fund was pillaged in an audacious campaign of fraud and theft that involved an unnamed top Malaysian official.
A Malaysian Cabinet official has since admitted that individual was Najib.
Najib singled-out his fiercest critic, former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has been campaigning for his ouster, calling him "a traitor".
But analyst Chong said even Mahathir, who has a strong local following, was not able "to present a serious obstacle to Najib."