Junior partner in Polish coalition warns of early election after animal rights rift

WARSAW, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Members of a junior partner in Poland’s ruling coalition warned on Friday that removing their party leader as justice minister would mean an early election, further exacerbating strains in a government that is less than a year old.

Polish media reported on Friday that Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, leader of the United Poland party, could lose his post next week. Ziobro is the architect of judicial reforms which critics say increase political control over the courts and which have put Poland into conflict with the European Union.

The biggest ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), was angered by the failure of Ziobro’s party, and a second coalition partner, Accord, to support an animal rights bill, though tensions between the parties have been simmering for some time as they jostle for position after a run of election victories.

“Any attempt to dismiss the minister of justice means elections,” said United Poland lawmaker Janusz Kowalski.

“Elections that are a gift for (the liberal, main opposition) Civic Platform...,” he added.

At stake is not only the stability of the government, but also the direction Poland will take in its relations with the European Union.

Ziobro’s ultra-conservative United Poland favours a more combative stance on issues such as judicial reforms and gay rights than more moderate figures in PiS centred around Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Proposed by PiS party leader and well-known cat lover Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the package of animal rights laws passed early on Friday thanks to opposition support, while most United Poland lawmakers opposed it and Accord largely abstained.

The package is seen as an attempt by PiS to reach out to younger voters. But some in the coalition felt the measures, which ban fur farming and the ritual slaughter of animals for the export of halal and kosher meat, would alienate voters in PiS’s rural heartlands and hurt farmers.

PiS deputy spokesman Radoslaw Fogiel said the problems in the ruling camp went deeper than current policy differences.

“A coalition can work when all the entities that make it up have a common goal, when they agree to act together and go in the same direction,” he said.

Reporting by Alan Charlish and Alicja Ptak Editing by Gareth Jones