* Warsaw at odds with Brussels over democracy, rule of law
* European Commission chief criticises "LGBTQI-free zones"
* Ruling coalition seeking ways to expand ageing voter base
* But coalition faces divisions over LGBT, women's rights
By Joanna Plucinska
WARSAW, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is resisting efforts by ultra-conservatives in the ruling coalition to step up a government crackdown on LGBT and women's rights, wary of further hurting ties with the European Union, government sources say.
The Law and Justice (PiS) government angered Brussels by using language during the campaign for a presidential election in July which critics said fomented homophobia.
That worsened already deep tensions with the European Commission over government policies which the EU executive says subvert democracy, including attempts to curb the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
With no election due for three years, the coalition wants to use the period to expand its ageing voter base. But, at a time of economic difficulties exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, it is divided over how to do so, senior officials say.
How the debate is resolved will help determine whether the nationalist coalition can avoid more open confrontation with the European Commission, which would risk Poland facing potential penalties.
PiS' head Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the final arbiter of government policy, says Western values, and specifically "LGBT ideology", should be avoided in Poland to preserve its traditional, Christian culture.
One wing of the coalition wants those beliefs to be defended through more specific actions. More moderate forces want to avoid antagonising Brussels.
Officials close to Morawiecki say Poland should be more pragmatic about relations with its EU partners as it faces pressure and possible loss of funds over its adherence to the rule of law. "We don't need another front," one coalition official said.
"CENTRAL EUROPEAN PATH"
At the heart of internal coalition tensions is Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the architect of government reforms of the judiciary which the EU says politicise courts, the government sources said.
Ziobro, who heads a small ultra-conservative party allied with PiS, has said gay marriage should be banned outright and that Poland should leave the Council of Europe's Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women, the government sources said.
At Ziobro's request, a Polish town that declared itself free of "LGBT ideology", prompting the EU to reject a town-twinning application, received compensation for the loss of EU funds it would have received if the project had gone ahead.
Since an election to the European Parliament in May last year, about 100 Polish municipalities have signed similar declarations. This has fuelled concern in Brussels although they appear not to have been followed by legislation to discriminate against LGBT residents.
For Ziobro, governing based on identity politics is the only way to maintain a steady support base.
An official in Ziobro's United Poland grouping rejected the more liberal path taken by governing parties in Europe such as Germany's Christian Democrat Union which "has nothing to do with conservatism anymore and is unacceptable".
"We want to go on our central European path that protects, not only defensively, but offensively builds the strength of the family, strengthens our national traditions," said the official on condition of anonymity.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen laid out the risks of such a stance on Wednesday in a speech to the European Parliament.
"LGBTQI-free zones are humanity-free zones. And they have no place in our (European) Union," she said, using the abbreviation for LGBT, questioning or intersex people.
Morawiecki has blocked Ziobro's call to leave the Istanbul Convention, and some officials are reluctant to back other moves that might antagonise Brussels such as limiting foreign ownership in the media sector, the government sources said.
Divisions in the coalition could come more out into the open in the coming weeks, when the government is expected to release details of its new strategy and legislative programme including reducing the number of ministries. (Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Timothy Heritage)