WHEN scholars write the history of Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, they will say that his greatest political mistake was to fall out with his long-time friend and ally James Soong Chu-yu - who left the Kuomintang and ran against it in yesterday's election. The split with Mr Soong, who won 36 per cent of the vote, was rich with irony because it was he who intervened to help Mr Lee at a critical moment in the outgoing President's career. It was January 1988, after the death of president Chiang Ching-kuo, and the KMT leaders met at the imposing party headquarters in central Taipei to decide who should succeed him as party chairman. Soong Mei-ling, widow of Chiang Kai-shek, told the meeting that the issue was too important to be decided at once and that they should wait for two to three months before ruling. There was a tense silence round the table. Who dared to contradict the wife of the Generalissimo? Certainly not Mr Lee, who had become president after Chiang Ching-kuo's death but who had little power in a party dominated by mainlanders. Ms Soong did not want a Taiwanese like Mr Lee to lead it. Suddenly, Mr Soong, a mainlander who had been Chiang Ching-kuo's English secretary, spoke up: 'Of course Lee should be party chairman. The president has always been the chairman. So it should be now.' His intervention transformed the meeting and Mr Lee was elected chairman, a historic moment in the history of the party. Mr Lee has held that post and that of President since then and became the dominant force in Taiwanese politics. Mr Soong was his close ally, for which Mr Lee rewarded him with key posts including spokesman of the government, secretary-general of the party and governor of Taiwan province. But the worm of jealousy began to turn in Mr Lee's heart. The President believed Mr Soong was emerging as a challenger to him as the island's top leader. For Mr Soong, the post of provincial governor appeared to be a dry run for the presidency which he initially planned to make as the KMT candidate. However, the two men developed sharp differences on policy, especially towards China. In 1998, Mr Lee made his move. He abolished the post of governor. His friendship with Mr Soong turned bitter and acrimonious, and Mr Lee chose Lien Chan as the party candidate for president. In November, Mr Soong left the party. 'We have thrown away the smelly fish,' Mr Lee said of Mr Soong at an election rally. 'Why would anyone still want it?' But if Mr Lee had chosen Mr Soong as the KMT candidate to run with Mr Lien, his party would have won yesterday's poll easily.