By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military-dominated legislature gave itself the power to impeach political office holders on Thursday, edging a step closer to rooting out the influence of controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The army seized power on May 22 in a bid to restore order and kick-start Southeast Asia's second-largest economy after months of political infighting that killed nearly 30 people.
The junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has reshuffled the civil service and the police force, once seen as an institution loyal to Thaksin, a former police officer, to try and neutralize his allies.
Thursday's move is the latest effort by the military leadership to curb the powers of those loyal to Thaksin and ensure political parties linked to him cannot regain power.
"The meeting unanimously voted in favor of introducing this rule," Pornpetch Wichitcholachai, leader of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), told reporters.
Thailand has suffered years of political turmoil centered on Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon whose policies helped galvanize support in rural areas but made him unpopular with the Bangkok-based royalist establishment.
Ousted by the army in 2006, he has lived in self-imposed exile since 2008 to avoid a two-year corruption sentence.
Thursday's vote was a bid by the military leadership to consolidate its grip on power, said Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asian expert affiliated with Chiang Mai University.
"This appears to be an attempt by the arch-royalist military leadership and its allies to completely remove from the political scene those politicians who either supported Thaksin over the years or those who may be viewed as not sufficiently acquiescent to the junta," Chambers said.
Anti-government demonstrators took to the streets in November to try and overthrow then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister.
Her supporters held counter-protests on the outskirts Bangkok to fight off what they called a bid to hijack democracy and consolidate power in the hands of the conservative elite.
After the 2006 coup, the constitution was re-written under a military-backed government to try and reduce Thaksin's influence, but it failed to halt his political machine.
Yingluck, whom Thaksin once called a clone of himself, swept to power just a few years later, in 2011, after winning a general election.
Days before the May 22 coup, Yingluck was ordered to step down, after a court found her guilty of abuse of power.
The lawmakers' new powers could bring more trouble for Yingluck. In a separate case in May, an anti-graft panel indicted her for dereliction of duty over her government's loss-making rice subsidy program.
The scheme, which paid farmers above-market prices for their rice, distorted the world market and left Thailand with huge stockpiles of rice.
The case was to have been sent to the senate, but the junta dissolved the upper house days after taking power.
Pornpetch said a legal team was studying whether Yingluck's case could be sent to the National Legislative Assembly. If it does go forward, a guilty verdict could leave her facing a five-year ban from political office.
"The military can use several types of legal strategies to remove Yingluck from the political scene," said Chambers. "The threat of using these tactics could also be a way to extort co-operation from her and her brother."
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)