De Menezes' unexpected rise from relative obscurity to head of state in free and fair elections went unnoticed around most of the globe, but constitutes one of Africa's political success stories. A number of factors made his success possible: his wealth, his previous public sector experience, and former President Trovoada's blessing. In addition, he adopted a widely popular platform, ran a successful campaign, and—helped by a transparent elections process—gained enough votes on the first round of the 29 July 2001 elections to defeat Manuel Pinto da Costa, the candidate of the governing MLSTP-PSD.
During the campaign it was clear that the country was betting on its future in petroleum, and it was common wisdom that building good relations with Africa's biggest oil producer, Nigeria, was one of the prime concerns of São Toméans. De Menezes' popularity thus hinged on his perceived ability to do business with the Nigerians, and on the credibility of his promises to fight for a more equal distribution of oil wealth for all Toméans. De Menezes made the most of this opportunity, and convinced voters that he was their most trustworthy choice. By contrast, Manuel Pinto da Costa had to defend an austerity program, unpopular reforms, and lower standards of living.
De Menezes also benefited from the support of the Accao Democratica Independente (ADI), the country's largest, but comparatively weak opposition, and five other political forces including the PCD, UNDP, Codo, PRD, and the PPP. Under the country's semi-presidential formula, the dominant parties in the Parliament wield considerable powers. This coalition no doubt reflected the self-interests of the leaders of these political entities, but it assured de Menezes of a constituency sufficient to score 56.3% to 39% of the vote over Pinto da Costa in the 29 July 2001 election. Three other opposition figures took 5% of the vote. While Guinea-Bissau President Kumba Yala and more than a thousand diplomats looked on, de Menezes was inaugurated São Tomé and Príncipe's third president on 3 September 2001.