In the literature on post-Suharto Indonesia, an increasingly dominant stream has portrayed the political system as being hijacked by predatory elite interests associated with the fallen New Order regime. While such characterisations describe important elements of the post-1998 polity, they do not tell the full story. At the same time that patronage-driven career politicians have staked their claims in the newly democratic state, a large number of civil society activists also started to play an active role in formal politics. This article illustrates how human rights advocates, women activists and labour leaders have tried to promote their causes not from the margins of civil society, but from within the power centre of political institutions. To be sure, some activists-turned-politicians have failed in this effort, but others have initiated key pieces of legislation that led to ground-breaking reforms. In comparative terms, the article demonstrates that Indonesian activists have created an effective political niche for themselves, avoiding both the patterns of state co-optation so prevalent in South Korea and the anti-system attitudes of activist politicians in Malaysia.