MADRID - Spain's conservative ruling party and the opposition Socialists are in panic mode as a surge in support for upstart Podemos shows little signs of abating ahead of elections next year.
Less than a year since it was born out of the Indignants protest movement, Podemos, with its pledge to defend the poor and bring to heel the elite "caste" of politicians and bankers, is leading opinion polls.
That has sent the two main parties that have governed Spain since the end of Francisco Franco's dictatorship in 1975 panicking.
The deputy leader of Spain's ruling Popular Party, Maria Dolores de Cospedal, compared Podemos to Venezuela's left-wing leaders and late president Hugo Chavez who are often vilified by the Spanish right wing and media.
"This kind of party, based on demagogy and populism... is very dangerous for the system and for democracy, for the Popular Party and for any political party," de Cospedal said last month.
"We know they are against everything. We don't know what they are in favour of." Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's target was clear when he railed against parties that sow "general mistrust... pointing the finger at the system", even if he didn't name names on that occasion.
The main opposition party has also taken aim at Podemos.
"Populism has taken institutional form in Podemos," said the Socialists' leader Pedro Sanchez.
"We call them by their name. They are the ones who have to explain whether or not they defend the regime of Chavez and of Venezuela."
'Panic' and 'populism'
Analysts say the establishment's backlash against Podemos is telling.
"It is an attack of panic against the new," said economist Juan Ignacio Crespo.
Podemos has seen a meteoric rise in Spanish politics.
Just four months after it was formed, it won 1.2 million votes and five seats in the elections for the European parliament in May.
In November, an opinion poll found that 28.6 percent of respondents would vote for Podemos in next year's elections. The ruling conservatives got 26.3 percent while the Socialists had just 20.1 percent, the survey showed.
"We were born to win," said its pony-tailed leader Pablo Iglesias, a university lecturer. "Our challenge is to build with others a political alternative to govern our country." Iglesias has yet to unveil detailed economic policies for his party but has called for a possible restructuring of Spain's debt and a rise in the minimum wage.
Podemos has struck a chord with a population fed up with years of tough public spending cuts imposed by both the conservative ruling party and the Socialists since a housing bubble burst in 2008.