Taiwan vote raises debate over past

Divisions over history loom large as island prepares for key elections.

    The legacy of Chiang Kai-shek has become a hot topic in the run-up to elections [Reuters]

    Voters in Taiwan are preparing to go the polls on Saturday in parliamentary elections which have put the island's often-strained relations with mainland China back in focus.


    The opposition Kuomintang party (KMT) favours closer ties with Beijing, and opinion polls predict it could win an outright majority.


    Hundreds of Chiang statues have been
    removed to a park outside Taipei
    That would place it in a strong position ahead of presidential elections due in March.


    The KMT accuses the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP), led by Chen Shui-bian, the president, of damaging the island's economy by souring relations with China.


    But Taiwan's troubled past has also cast a shadow over the poll, with the two parties clashing over how to mark the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek, the founder of the KMT.


    Chiang fled to Taiwan after losing the civil war to China's Communists in 1949, and for many on the island he remains a hero.


    Until recently schools across Taiwan would begin each day with children singing the praises of the late generalissimo.


    But to many others like Chen, Chiang was a brutal dictator.


    Recently Chen has been trying to diminish the legacy of the man who led the Chinese nationalists and set up a government in exile on Taiwan after their defeat by the communists.


    Tomb closed


    Moves to rewrite Chiang's legacy have led
    to protests from KMT supporters [Reuters]
    He has ordered the removal of hundreds of Chiang statues from government buildings and public squares, many of which have ended up in a park outside the capital, Taipei, near Chiang's gravesite.


    His tomb - once a place of pilgrimage - has seen its military honour guard withdrawn and its doors closed to the public.


    Last month the grand plaza in Taipei, where a giant statue of Chiang resides, was renamed Liberty Square.


    The statue remains, but the once revered leader now smiles down on an exhibit titled Goodbye Chiang Kai-shek.


    It calls him a dictator, and condemns his brutality and repression of dissent and democracy on the island which he ruled until his death in 1975.


    The tourists still come and other visitors may pay their respects but, says the ruling DPP, the time for hero-worship is over.


    "In almost every university we have a library with the name Chiang Kai-shek," says Shieh Jhy-wey, Taiwan's information minister.


    "In every city, the most important street was named Chiang Kai-shek. The fact is Chiang governed Taiwan with martial law. He killed a lot of people. He killed a lot of intellectuals. He killed a lot of lawmakers. He killed a lot of students."


    Chiang's political heirs in the KMT lost power to Chen's DPP in an upset election seven years ago, after 53-years of one-party rule.


    'Distorting history'


    Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's president, says the
    hero worship of Chiang must end [Reuters]
    But now they are staging a comeback and polls predict a big win for the remodelled party in Saturday's vote.


    The party's candidate for president, Ma Ying-jeou, is also leading in opinion polls for the March presidential vote.


    Old time KMT loyalists, especially the generalissimo's old army comrades, like retired General Han Ling, are outraged at the insulting treatment of the man they consider the father of their country.


    "Without Chiang Kai-shek there would be no Taiwan," says General Han. "He made tremendous contributions to China and Taiwan. It wasn't at all like what their saying. What they're doing is distorting history."


    But the argument over Chiang's historical legacy is not just about Taiwan's past – it is about who should lead it in the future.


    On that issue, Taiwan's voters will begin to have their say this weekend.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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