Bangladesh's main opposition party, emboldened by its success at municipal polls and public anger at high inflation, called for a strike on Monday to demand early parliamentary elections to force the ruling party from power.
Analysts did not expect the general strike, the fourth by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took office in early 2009, to change the date of the 2013 election.
But this large-scale challenge by the BNP adds to the woes of Hasina's government, already struggling with discontent over high prices, lacking public services as well as the crash in the stock market, a main source of income for many in this impoverished country.
"The strike is part of our protest against excesses by the government," senior BNP official Jainal Abedin Farook told party activists on Sunday.
"Unless it behaves democratically we will be compelled to launch a fierce campaign to force an early election."
In December, food inflation hit 11 percent, its highest level in three years, and analysts warned rising global food prices may drive the index higher.
Angry investors took to the streets of the capital on Sunday after the stock exchange suffered another dramatic fall, the latest of a series of collapses that forced halts in trading several times last month.
Security forces patrolled Dhaka's streets and deployed around key government buildings on Monday. Riot police were seen in armoured cars topped by water cannons, but there were few people moving about the city in the early morning.
"The city is still calm in the first hours of the strike, but the situation may change as the day grows, with protesters showing up," said a police officer who declined to be identified. The strike began at 6 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. (0000-1200 GMT)
BNP supporters vandalised a dozen vehicles in Dhaka overnight, but there were no casualties, police said.
The strike was also intended to mobilise public opinion against a controversial new airport plan and force authorities to withdraw a case against Khaleda for allegedly provoking violence over the issue, BNP leaders said.
Prime minister Hasina defeated BNP leader and former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia in a vote held in December 2008 that restored democracy after two years of rule by a military-backed interim authority.
Economists estimate that Bangladesh, home to more than 150 million people and a multi-billion dollar export-oriented garments industry, could lose some $250 million a day due to any strike-related stoppages. Analysts and diplomats say general strikes in the politically volatile country scare away investors and slow development.
Any unrest could also cast a pall over Bangladesh's hosting of the Cricket World Cup on Feb. 17.
"This is not the end of strikes," BNP secretary-general Delwar Hossain said late on Sunday. "We may go for continuous stoppages if police use force against the opposition leaders and workers, and to hasten the fall of the government."